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Tolstoy, Stripped for Speed

Bernard Rose, the writer/director of the new movie version of Anna Karenina, talks about how lucky he was to discover "this marvelous story as an adult." But in an adaptation, the story should be no more than what Henry James called the donne -- the base an artist works from to achieve his own individual expression. When an adaptation is faithful to the original without evoking its texture or spirit, the "story" gets reduced to a plot that's not so marvelous -- and here, at times, not even explicable.

That happens throughout this flamboyant movie, starring Sophie Marceau as Anna and Sean Bean as Vronsky, her lover. Taking Tolstoy's tome at a gallop, Rose tramples on social observations and psychological subtleties. Rose's title may be Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, but his approach resembles a Modern Romance comic book: Anna and Vronsky meet when he picks up his mother at the Moscow railroad station. (Gasp!) They fall helplessly in love at a dance. (Ooh!) He intercepts her during her return trip to Saint Petersburg. (Sigh!) Her husband, Karenin, sees her react with anguish when Vronsky's horse stumbles during a steeplechase. (Oof!)

At other times it's like a CIA thriller, with title cards that hurtle us from Moscow to Saint Petersburg to summer homes and country estates, then on to Italy when Anna decides to throw off everything except Vronsky. She leaves her adored son behind, failing to reckon that there's no future for her in a life founded solely on romance.

So little characterization emerges in these breathless hundred or so minutes that when it does, it seems accidental, a tribute to isolated actors. I felt more sympathetic to that highhanded, bantering spouse, old Alexi Karenin, than to Anna or Vronsky, because James Fox wrings more poignancy from the man's on-and-off tenderness than Marceau and Bean do from the lovers' passion.

Anna Karenina appears to be a trap for scriptwriters. Enraptured with the idea of dramatizing the most beloved of all fictional works about adultery, they tend to go for classic set pieces -- the railroad deaths that bracket the main action, the grand ball, the catastrophic horserace, and so on -- without realizing that when you cut them to the bone to make them fit, you create a skeleton. Here, watching the domesticated Anna make an entrance in a jet-black ball gown, a viewer senses that she's supposed to be transformed into a picture of erotic radiance without really feeling that she is. Fictional sequences so indelible that they've become archetypal turn into random anecdotes in a cinematic soap opera. Without a proper setup, touches straight out of Tolstoy seem inept, confusing or merely garish. When Anna becomes a dope addict over Vronsky's restlessness and boredom, Rose washes the screen in hellish red.

Rose does remain true to the novel's core relationships: the conventional marriage of Anna's philandering brother Stiva (Danny Huston) to the faithful Dolly (Saskia Wickham); the affective gap between the emotional Anna and her propriety-bound husband, Karenin; and the troubled love of the self-doubting rural idealist Constantin Levin (Alfred Molina) for Dolly's impressionable younger sister, Kitty (Mia Kirshner), who admires Levin deeply yet is infatuated with the dashing Vronsky. A flirtatious military dandy, Vronsky is the joker in the pack -- he initially upsets Levin's pursuit of Kitty and winds up destroying Anna's life, and his own.

In Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (as opposed to Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina), the author is refreshingly brisk when he introduces the three couples. He begins his book in medias res: Stiva's affair with a governess endangers his and Dolly's marriage; Anna comes to her brother's rescue. But Rose is inordinately impatient. Rose turns Tolstoy's novel into a literary obstacle course; the script galumphs over hurdles, and the camera whooshes toward the finish line. As a friend of mine said: "It's like he's tearing out pages from the book and flinging them in your face."

And what of Anna, a character so challenging that in the sound era, only two of the greatest screen actresses -- Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh -- have tried to play her on the big screen (and only Garbo has succeeded)? She's enacted here by the pretty Marceau, whose melting ex-pressions are about as ineffable as a model's in a perfume ad. Marceau seems stranded in a romance novel, not an epic that digs inside the excitement and perils of romance.

Going from music videos to the psychological horror of Paperhouse, the Grand Guignol of Candyman and the florid excesses of that riotous Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved, Rose wants to be the next Michael Powell, translating 19th-century artistic grandeur into the kinesthetic sweep of the cinema. Unfortunately, he's more like Ken Russell, the petit-maitre of cheap effects. His wild lunges are occasionally beautiful, but they rarely connect. In one daring, prolonged shot, he films Kitty gliding into a ballroom and into a dance master's arms. The effect is exhilarating, until you notice that the dancers' movements don't match the music. Rose slops Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev all over the soundtrack, and in general he does them a disservice. He extracts only the most obvious themes or climaxes from their intricate compositions. He does the same to Tolstoy.

Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.
Directed by Bernard Rose. With Sophie Marceau, Sean Bean, Alfred Molina and James Fox.

Rated R.
108 minutes.

 
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