There are certain actress and actors plagued by their big breaks. Judy Garland was forever forced to sing Over The Rainbow for the rest of her life… James Dean was thought of solely as a bad boy, not a classically trained actor….People become known for one role that made them famous and they struggle to get out and break through to show their versatility. For Vivien Leigh the role was Scarlett O’Hara, a headstrong Southern woman who was entangled in one of the most famous love tragedies ever. Although British by ancestry and a very strong versatile stage actress, she was forever type cast as a headstrong woman who will never be rewarded with love at least in its purest sense. Because of this she rarely wanted to work in films (of course it was not the only reason, merely one reason in a pile full of mental illness, jealousy, and self-consciousness) and when she did, her experience was usually not the greatest. This was the case of Anna Karenina (I put the 1948 version in order for people not to confuse with the earlier version made with Greta Garbo) which ended up being a financial failure and was wrought with breakdowns from Vivien and other actors in the film. These facts do not show on the screen. But not a whole lot does.
Anna Karenina was originally a very long and dense novel by Leo Tolstoy. It is only on the surface about Anna’s affair with Count Vronsky. But the story has more layers and characters than most films are willing to commit to which is why the films can feel random at times for people who have not read the book. For instance, why is there a focus (admittedly only for a few scenes) on this younger woman being slighted by Count Vronsky for Anna only to marry a much older man and declare she loves him? In the novel that much older man served as the moral compass and the stand in for Tolstoy himself. But in this film this subplot without any commentary on the degredation of Russian society or his inability to commit to the idea of Kitty (the younger woman and the niece to Anna) of actually loving him that mirrors Anna’s inability to commit to Count Vronsky staying with her forever, he and his subplot seems unnecessary. You cannot cut the meat of a character and expect him to still have the same life on screen. It is impossible. Also when you place Anna and her affair with Count Vronsky in the center of the story instead of this older man character, the characters don’t hold up… especially Count Vronsky. Admittedly Count Vronsky is nothing more than a macguffin in the book for Anna to get her to finally live out her fantasy of an affair and for her husband to take away all of her social status, but at least he has some emotions and doubts about Anna. In the film he mostly a wet blanket for Vivien to act circles around. Holy crap was that actor miscast. He just faded into the background only to pop up every once in awhile to show off his mustache.
Due to the stripping of the story, the only interesting scenes that remain are between Anna and her husband. Ralph Richardson is easily becoming one of my favorite character actors from the studio era. He can play the severe and austere father/husband part so well that there has got to be some part of him in real life that is full of austerity. (By the way I praised him in my review of The Heiress, if you want to read that review) He can take the act of leaving a room to mean so much that it causes irrepreable damage to the actress who is left on her own. I wish that the whole film was only Anna and her husband talking about things. I think it would have a better effect on me than all of the scenes outside of their house did in the real film. In fact that might be a good way to adapt the novel is to just have Anna and her husband talk about the affair and how it is destroying him professionally when he really means personally. Hmm… (that would be too much work for me but if anyone would like to try, I would read it and probably watch it if it gets that far)
This film is bloated and unnecessary for the most part. The director seemed to care more for what Vivien was wearing and how to stage the grand scenes in the ballroom and in Venice than to actually notice that one of his actors sucked hard and most of the other characters didn’t have anything to do with the version of the story he was telling. But if you want to watch Vivien and Ralph act together than I would suggest fast forwarding to their parts.