J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Russian Film Week ’09: Anna Karenina

“A great Russian brand” is how director Sergei Solovyev described Leo Tolstoy in a press conference held last night. He also credited Oprah Winfrey for helping bring his screen adaptation of Anna Karenina to fruition when she recommended it to her Pavlovian viewers, making an unlikely bestseller of the Nineteenth Century novel. While Solovyev might have departed stylistically from earlier film treatments, rest assured he did not “Oprah-ize” his big screen version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (trailer here), which opened this year’s Russian Film Week in New York City.

Karenina is a rich, complex, and lengthy novel, but it can be readily boiled down to its essence. Anna Arkadyevna Karenina is married to the much older Alexei Alexandrovna Karenin, but she is the lover of the dashing Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky. Their situation produces conflict that is timeless and universal.

Most prior adaptations of Karenina have been formal costumes dramas, very conscious of their status as prestige pictures. While the sets and costumes are appropriately elegant, Solovyev’s approach is much more impressionistic, employing saturated colors and deliberately cinematic lighting effects. Likewise, composer Anna Solovyeva’s score also reflects a great variety of moods and textures, but it always nicely fits the on-screen drama.

Considering they are playing two of the greatest lovers in the history of literature, Tatyana Drubich and Yaroslav Boyko seem like surprisingly cold fish as Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky, respectively. Strangely, it is the old men who fare best in Soloyev’s Karenina, with Oleg Yankovskiy bringing unusual dignity and gravitas to the role of Karenin, the often overlooked side of this classic love triangle. Sergey Garmash, known for playing heavies in Nikita Mikhalkov’s 12 and Anders Banke’s Tribeca-selected Newsmakers, is also quite effective, but almost unrecognizable, as Kostya Levin, the spurned suitor of Anna’s youngest sister-in-law, Kitty.

While Solovyev brings a distinctive new look to the material, Karenina still has plenty of good old-fashioned literary melodrama to offer. Non-Russian speakers should note one particular caveat though. The distractingly bad subtitles are often completely illegible against white backgrounds (and it snows a lot in Russia). It might not be the best Karenina yet filmed, but it is certainly an apt way to kick-off Russian Film Week. Solovyev’s Karenina screens again Monday (11/16) at the SVA Theatre.

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