Film review: Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina

Published: Saturday, June 21 1997 5:58 p.m. MDT

If you want to enjoy "Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina" . . . the new film, that is . . . you'll have to prepare yourself a bit:

— First, toss out of your mind any memory of Tolstoy's more profound prose. This is, after all, a motion picture of just under two hours, and we're lucky enough to get a portion of the story, much less any metaphysical ruminations.

— Second, forget how movies are made today. Save some R-rated snippets (though the film itself is rated PG-13), this picture could have been churned out by the old-guard Hollywood machine. It's lush, it's aloof, it's unabashedly sentimental and it's even backed by familiar classical music.

What this film is not, however, is truly romantic or in the slightest bit sexy, though that is quite obviously what the filmmakers desired.

There is still enjoyment here, if you can accept an adaptation of Tolstoy as shallow soap opera.

The cast is attractive, with Sophie Marceau ("Brave-heart") in the title role as Anna, an aristocrat whose husband Alexi (James Fox) is a stiff. But she adores her young son, so she keeps up appearances.

We first meet Anna at her initial encounter with Count Vronsky (Sean Bean, who played villains in "Patriot Games" and "GoldenEye"). Anna steps off a train, Vronsky is dumbstruck, their eyes meet and it's love at first sight. Against her better judgment, she allows herself to drift into an affair, and the scandal sends them off on their own. But she misses her son, and tragedy looms.

Relating all this is a wealthy landowner named Levin (Alfred Molina, of "Enchanted April" and "Maverick"), whose own story of unrequited love for a young princess (Mira Kirshner), and how they eventually get together, is an underdeveloped subplot.

As told here, however, Levin's story is infinitely more interesting, and the audience may be frustrated that it is not given more screen time.

A lot of that has to do with Molina's charming, low-key performance. His heartbreak and eventual joy are conveyed so convincingly, he seems to be in another film. Marceau and Bean have no chemistry, which is essential to a film like this. And the featherweight script gives them nothing to develop.

Screenwriter/director Bernard Rose ("Immortal Beloved," "Candyman"), shooting on location in Moscow and St. Petersburg, gives the film a remarkably authentic 19th-century feel.

And the long, expansive shots of the various locations, filled with extras and horse-drawn cabs, are quite amazing by today's standards.

Clearly the detailed visual aspects of the film are the highlight.

Too bad that kind of attention wasn't also given to the screenwriting process.

"Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina" is rated PG-13 for (violence, brief sex, brief nudity, drugs).

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