Leo Tolstoy’s classic masterpiece Anna Karenina has been made into scores of feature and television films. So many versions have been made in fact, that some inevitably get lost over the years amidst bigger names and bigger budgets, not to mention the sometimes overwritten scripts and ostentatious presentations. This 1961 BBC adaptation is one of those lost treasures that will finally, one hopes, receive the acclaim it deserves with this DVD release.
Never before seen in North America, this production was adapted for television by Donald Bull and directed by Rudolph Cartier. Both men were probably best known for their work on episodes of several long-running theater-on-television series, including BBC Play of the Month and Thirty-Minute Theatre. Better known, of course, are the stars. Claire Bloom (Brideshead Revisited, Shadowlands) and Sean Connery (The Untouchables, The Hunt for Red October) are riveting as the ill-fated lovers Anna and Count Vronsky.
Anna is a character that can be notoriously difficult to play, but Bloom’s interpretation is just the right mixture of regal bearing, initial stoicism, romanticism and strength of conviction. She shows Anna’s acquiescence to her love for Vronsky, like someone slowly stepping into a pool, tentatively at first, then suddenly brazen, until she is delightfully and completely immersed. The scenes in which the couple are happy together are as light and joyous as love should be, with Bloom radiating love and laughter where other actresses have missed that facet of Anna entirely.
The most wonderful thing about Bloom’s performance, however, especially when compared to others, is that she manages to portray Anna’s humiliation, growing insecurity and final emotional frenzy without falling into an overwrought Shakespearean hysteria. She is mesmerizing to watch, and even the variances in the picture quality due to the archival nature of the print cannot diminish her magnetism.
Connery provides a dashing and handsome Vronsky, to be sure, but his performance also brings a gravity to match Bloom’s. Too often, the role is given to an actor who only fits the Count’s physical specifications and youth, but the actor is not suited to play against such a formidable protagonist, as was unfortunately the case with the 1935 film starring Greta Garbo, as well as with Vivian Leigh’s 1948 turn as Anna. Thankfully, this was not an issue with Connery, who was well cast on all counts.
He also does quite well given the limitations of his often truncated speeches. In fact, the whole cast is to be commended for the fact that the entire story is so brilliantly conveyed with such a minimal script. Though this Anna Karenina is a spare 108-minutes including the credits, and despite its occasionally stilted dialogue, it communicates as much or more of the original story than productions twice that length.
It’s not just the actors that make this comparatively brief version so compelling. The close staging and tight, economical shooting adds an extra bit of tension that is not present in subsequent film and television productions. This obviously owes a lot to Cartier’s experience filming plays, and it’s a very effective device in this instance. It quite consciously illustrates the rigid roles and expectations of the society Tolstoy was exploring, and it beautifully underscores Anna’s tragic decision to remain trapped in her situation.
Throughout the film, the tension obviously further heightens the pull between Connery and Bloom, but it also elevates the exchanges between the other characters. And the way the camera locks tightly on Bloom’s face for seemingly endless moments before sharply cutting upward into the lantern light may be the most dramatic and moving cinematic ending that this story has yet seen.
It’s amazing to realize as the voice-over credits are recited, that this was filmed for and always intended for television, because it has all the weight of an epic, big screen production. Anna Karenina is, of course, a timeless tale. This Anna Karenina is an equally timeless adaptation.