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Anna Karenina (1961) (DVD)
Leo Tolstoy's 1878 novel gets the BBC treatment in this stately adaptation, broadcast a year before Sean Connery's iconic debut as James Bond in Dr. No. The famously doomed affair begins when Count Vronsky (Connery) meets Anna Karenina (Claire Bloom, The Haunting), Prince Oblonsky's sister, at a Moscow train station. She's married to diplomat Alexei Karenin (Albert Lievin), but the attraction is instant and Vronsky is persistent. Further, Anna is unhappy in her union with a man her brother (Jack Watling) considers "cold as a pickled carp." She does her best to resist Vronsky's advances, but a relationship eventually ensues. Once Alexei figures out what's going on, he forbids her to see their son until she breaks with the count. Instead, she leaves him to become Vronsky's mistress, much to the disapproval of St. Petersburg high society. As Alexei tells Oblonsky with disgust, "She reeks of passion." As much out of humiliation as anger, he refuses to grant her a divorce, and an awkward arrangement takes a turn for the worse, leading Anna to believe that half a life is no life at all. Dozens of actresses, including Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh, have taken on Tolstoy's heroine over the years. While the definitive version of his text has yet to materialize, Bloom offers one of the finer interpretations, and Connery broods and smolders handsomely. This DVD eschews extras and includes the following disclaimer: "Due to the archive nature of the material, the sound and picture quality may vary occasionally." --Kathleen C. Fennessy
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Called away from her husband and son in order to help resolve a rift in her brother's marriage, Anna Karenina (Bloom) meets by chance the dashing Count Vronsky (Connery). Having already resigned herself to a passionless life, counting the days until old age, Anna is completely unprepared for the romance which will soon overtake her. Abandoning cold husband Alexei (Albert Lieven), she runs away with Vronsky, but upon their return to Russia, Anna finds life as a social outcast too much to bear. Shunned by the people who were meant to be friends, paranoid about Vronsky's seemingly waning passion, and desperately missing her son, Anna's final act is somehow the fulfilment of her ultimate destiny...
"Anna Karenina" scholars will be a little disappointed at what's missing in this version (the characters of Dolly and Kitty are turned into quite minor figures, Anna's son Sergei doesn't appear until the last act, and Levin doesn't even feature), but what this severely-condensed version of the story leaves out is more than compensated with the performance of Claire Bloom as Anna. One of the great classical actresses of her generation, Bloom gives us a more delicate Anna, with a beautifully haunted quality. Often she doesn't even have to say anything, the camera has only to focus on her dark, expressive eyes, and the performance is there.
On paper, Sean Connery would seem an odd choice for Vronsky and it's true, the part doesn't entirely suit him, but he works well with Bloom. Jack Watling is Anna's brother Stiva, Daphne Anderson plays Dolly, June Thorburn ("Tom Thumb") is Kitty, and Patricia ("Devil Girl from Mars") Laffan is Princess Betsy.
Design wise the production is a bit clunky. Most BBC productions during this period were studio-bound (and even when going outside still very much "inside"), so the look of the piece operates more like a stage play, albeit an elaborately-designed one. Costumes by Elizabeth Agombar are lush, but the hairstyles of Kitty, Dolly and Princess Betsy seem a bit too Sixties to my eyes.
Picture quality for this DVD is more than acceptable given the extreme rarity of the material. Indeed, it's a miracle to have this production on DVD in the first place, given that most of the BBC materal from this era was erased during several archive purges in the 1970's in a bid to recycle expensive videotape. We are forever grateful that there was at least one survivor from that disaster... Claire Bloom's "Anna Karenina".