I've never read Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. I realize it's a classic and all that jazz, but who the Christ has the time to wade through 800 pages of a critique on 19th century Russian society and mores? I certainly don't. I tried to be intelligent in high school and checked it out from the library once; I got exactly three pages in before I, not understanding a damn word of what was going on, returned it a few weeks later. Instead, I relied on the two Greta Garbo versions of the story (1927's Love and 1935's Anna Karenina). While neither of them particularly blew me away, they were fine melodramas that cut right through Tolstoy's apparent social commentary and focused on the tragic love affair (and who's going to deny that Garbo was absolutely fantastic in both of them).
Now, this brings us to the 1948 version of Anna Karenina (Julien Duvivier, 1948) starring Vivien Leigh as the tragic Anna. The story remains the same- Anna breaks society's "rules of the game" by leaving her husband and son to live in sin, unmarried, with a dashing young count- but Duvivier sticks closer to the book, I presume, by focusing more on the societal impact of Anna's decision than on the physical attraction between her and Vronsky. This is all well and good, and I'm sure that in the book it makes for deep, thought provoking material, but when done this coldly and impassionately, it doesn't exactly make for the most fascinating film, you know? Countless scenes go by in which some character (usually either Anna or Ralph Richardson's Alexander) lament about how cruel society is and that they really want to act in one way but can't because it isn't "proper"; instead of feeling for these characters, all I kept thinking was, "Get on with it, damnit!"
Even the romantic scenes between Anna and Count Vronsky- which positively smoldered in the Garbo versions- feel flat and detached. I suppose you can blame that on the fact that this is a British production- they have always been more of a "stiff upper lip" sort of people- but it shouldn't have felt this off. There's really no chemistry between Leigh and Kieron Moore to speak of. So, if the social commentary is boring and the romance is a dud, what is there to even be excited about in this version of Anna Karenina? To be honest, nothing. Julien Duvivier's direction is so plain Jane and passionless that it's honestly quite to hard to even get invested into the story. For the most part, the film looks like it was shot in the manner of a stage play with it's poor script and shoddy camerawork. Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Anna Karenina is, however, Vivien Leigh's performance. I know it's unfair to place the expectation on an actress that every performance has to be her greatest ever, but I honestly never foresaw a time when Leigh would ever be less than perfect. She's not bad here by any means; she's just very underwhelming. A lot of the time, it felt like she was recycling leftover bits of Scarlett O'Hara, only minus the charm, sophistication and wit of that epic performance. Leigh was good at the very the end when she's wandering around the train station, driven mad by her lover's betrayal, but it doesn't make up for the last 110 minutes of mediocrity. If only Duvivier had gotten this level of risk and bravura from Leigh earlier, he just may have saved her performance and this dreary film. C