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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Anna Karenina-Istoriya Vronskogo, Review: ‘Vronsky’s story’ does no justice to Tolstoy

Anna Karenina-Istoriya Vronskogo, Review: ‘Vronsky’s story’ does no justice to Tolstoy

“If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy"—Russian author Isaak Babel.

Not being an authority on Leo Tolstoy’s writings of over 100 years ago, I cannot give my views on this rather sweeping statement. But after seeing the latest interpretation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in Russian/dubbed and sub-titled in English, a mini-TV series turned into a major segment of the epic novel, I can say with some conviction that Karen Shakhnazarov does not write like Tolstoy.

Told in flashback, with sound often coming on early while leading to a cut, Anna Karenina-Istoriya Vronskogo (Vronsky’s Story) becomes difficult to keep pace with, although most of the shots have a vintage technique, appropriately so. We go back from 1904, the Russian-Japanese War, Manchuria where is located a Russian military hospital, on the retreat stations, in a half-destroyed Chinese village. A major Japanese attack is imminent. The head of the hospital Sergei Karenin learns that the wounded officer Count Vronsky is the person who had a torrid affair with late mother Anna Karenina (Karenina means wife of Karenin, in Russian). This part about the Russo-Japanese war seems to have been inserted in place of the Serbian/Slavic/Ottoman war, combining a propaganda booklet, During the Japanese War, and the literary cycle Stories about the Japanese War, by Vikenty Veresaev.

Vronsky has grown extremely fond of ChuSheng (which means born in spring, in Mandarin), a Chinese girl caught in the horror of war. Karenin, who was an eight year-old boy living with his parents when the affair happened, comes to Vronsky and asks him the question which has been tormenting him all his life: what made his mother cross the line? After some hesitation, Vronsky agrees to tell the story of his tragic love for Anna Karenina, observing that people remember only what they choose to remember. Immersed in the past, Vronsky begins to reassess the story of thirty years ago, and finally comes to realise, that for many years, he has been in the grip of the bygone events.

Leo Tolstoy, Tolstoy also spelled Tolstoi, whose full name in Russian would be Lev Nikolayevich, Graf (count) Tolstoy was born in1828 and died in 1910. Two marathon novels define his work: War and Peace (1865–69) and Anna Karenina (1875–77). His doctrine of peaceful resistance had an important influence on Mahatma Gandhi. In the book, Anna first appears as the faithful wife of the stiff, unromantic, but otherwise decent government minister. But Anna, who imagines herself the heroine of a romantic novel, allows herself to fall in love with an officer, Aleksei Vronsky. Schooling herself to see only the worst in her husband, she eventually leaves him and her son to live with Vronsky. Throughout the novel, Tolstoy indicates that the romantic idea of love, which most people identify with love itself, is entirely incompatible with the superior kind of love, the intimate love of good families. As the novel progresses, Anna, who suffers pangs of conscience for abandoning her husband and child, develops a habit of lying to herself until she reaches a state of near madness and total separation from reality. She at last commits suicide by throwing herself under a train. A fitting end to a ‘fallen’ woman. The most defining line in the novel is, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."       

Directed by Karen Shakhnazarov (Ward No. 6, White Tiger, The Assassin of the Tsar), also the co-writer, this venture is nowhere near a classic. Confining itself to Vronsky’s point of view, Anna Karenina of 2017 is nebulous and prosaic, full of vague postulations, faulty sub-titling and breakneck dubbing, only occasionally relieved by soft, soothing music by Yuriy Poteenko. There is an overdose of despondency and impending tragedy throughout the film, part of which must be attributed to Tolstoy’s all-pervading amoral, and even immoral, ambience.

Karen Shakhnazarov, one of several descendants of the famous Melik-Shahnazarian princely family from Nagorno-Karabakh that ruled Nagorno-Karabakh's province of Varanda in medieval and modern times, has been able to capture the period well, with elaborate sets and exquisite costumes. His characters look their parts, but never rise above their personae. It is possible that Tolstoy wrote his characters as illogical, irrational, loquacious and yet full of emptiness. However, divested from the literary work, all this conversation-confrontation leads nowhere. Some scenes do impress, like the horse-race, the opera and the galloping horse-cart. Bogged down in a chronicle of verbal exchanges and posturing, editor Irina Kozhemyakina is able to instil some pace, albeit occasionally, with technical juxtaposition.

Vronsky is Max Matveev (Happy New Year, Mom!, Weekend, Love Does Not Love, Fort Ross: In Search of Adventure) though the tale does not remain fixated on him. Elizaveta Boyarskaya (Admiral, The Irony of Fate 2 , Vy ne ostavite menya, Soviet Park) is the legendary Anna, Vitaliy Kishchenko (Cosmonautics Belyy tigr, Target) is cast as Karenin and

Kirill Grebenshchikov has worked mainly in TV. They all act out their parts with Boyarskaya (who also speaks English and German in real life), often going over the top. The girl playing the Chinese war victim is cute, though we do wonder how Vronsky is able to talk to her fluently in Chinese. It would be unfair to make any further assessment, considering the triple platform audio-visual experience: Russian, English dubbing and English sub-titling.

There is Even at 98 minutes, Anna Karenina: Vronsky’s story fails to hold interest.

P.S.: With two lead characters named Sergei causing confusion no end, wouldn't it have been right to change one name, especially as the son already has another nickname?

Rating: * ½


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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