It is difficult for a film to do justice in its entirety to the Russian novel. Their landscapes are too vast, their histories too complex and their characters often epic. Acknowledging this mismatch between a two hour film and the complex divisions of Tolstoy’s 'Anna Karenina', the Russian film maker, Karen Shakhnazarov, has adapted the novel by staying only with an interpretation of the triangular relationship shared between Anna Karenina, her husband, Karenin, and her lover, Vronsky.
He has focussed entirely on the reaction of the aristocracy in Czarist Russia to this extramarital relationship. His interpretation is from Vronsky’s perspective; an unusual way to look at the novel. It is set long after Anna’s death, when Vronsky is a senior officer in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05, and unexpectedly meets Anna's son, Sergei Karenin, now a military doctor. Vronsky is wounded, and Sergei attends to him.
The two men reconnect cautiously. Sergei was a little boy when Vronsky fell in love with his mother and broke up the unhappy, but stable marriage of his parents. He says he was taught to hate his mother by his family, but now, after all these years, he wants to know more about her. Vronsky tells him their love story in flashback, and it is a grand, elegiac telling, with the creation of a Russia that is patriarchal, feudal, archaic, atavistic, and doomed to failure. The film makes you acutely aware of class inequality, and the lovers and their passions sometimes seem stilted and inappropriate in this context. There is one striking scene when Anna visits her husband, Karenin, and is distraught because he has insisted on custody of little Sergei. But instead of the drama of a mother about to lose her son, we focus on the servants polishing the floor of Karenin's palatial home, by a primitive and laborious process, that today might be described as slave labour.
This interpretation of the novel does take on the ideological colour of contemporary Russia, but so beautifully is it shot as a set piece, and so operatic its style of presentation, that we watch it mesmerised. There is one particular scene, when the extraordinarily beautiful Anna (Elizaveta Boyarskaya) is travelling by coach with her maid to try and meet Vronsky. She is hysterical because she thinks that her lover will leave her. Her mind is confused, her words garbled; and the director equates her emotional state to animalism by cutting to the horses of her carriage tearing through the snow bound streets.
’Toska’ is a Russian word that is considered untranslatable in English because it indicates a feeling of spiritual emptiness, an unspecified ache of the soul. This adaptation may be short on drama and is probably not invested with the kind of emotional expression that we are more familiar with in actors who are portraying characters trapped in a three way relationship. It is also true that Vronsky (Maksim Matveyev) is somewhat inhibited, both as the narrator and the co-protagonist. But, inexplicably, when Vronsky tells Sergei (Kirill Grebenshchikov) that he believes Anna is not dead, because he has always felt her presence all around him, even at the very moment he is telling her story, an inexpressible ’toska’ envelops you.
Technically, the biggest problem with this film is that it is dubbed in English. It is necessary to hear the Russian language when you see a modern interpretation of Tolstoy’s great novel. Still, the film is certainly worth a watch.