Chemistry is everything and Vivien Leigh had chemistry with Clark Gable in the 1939 “Gone with the Wind,” but her 1948 appearance as the tragic heroine in the black and white “Anna Karenina” brings her beauty but not her fire to the screen.
In 1951, she would find a better vehicle as another tragic lady, Blanche, in “A Streetcar Named Desire” opposite Marlon Brando as Stanley. Yet in this version of Leo Tolstoy’s novel (with Jean Anouilh, Guy Morgan and Julien Duvivier credited with the screenplay), Leigh plays opposite Kieron Moore, an Irish actor who would eventually appear in other movies and in TV series, but without really reaching stardom.
Moore can’t be entirely blamed for the frosty reception this film received. Director Julien Duvivier seemed to be well-satisfied with having lovely men and women in gorgeous clothes walking gracefully about finely furnished rooms. Nowhere is there a suggestion of the stultifying restrictions of the aristocratic classes. Morality of the time, didn’t allow for us to consider that Anna’s husband might be a nice guy and Ralph Richardson plays him as a cold, ambitious politician, but without the charm one associates modern-day politicians. One can hardly imagine Richardson’s Karenin charming a child. Leigh’s suffering as Anna never contorts her face into an unattractive agony and Leigh must depend upon posing and stage-like mannerisms.
Because we lack this counterpoint of the decay of the nobility into useless stilted actors on a decrepit stage, Levin’s (Niall MacGinnis) romance with Kitty (Sally Ann Howes) leaves us feeling a bit sorry for Kitty.
The script clearly tells us what Anna was doing wrong (besides sleeping in a twin bed in the same bedroom as her husband). She was the tragic type and she didn’t understand that “hypocrisies must never be outraged.”
Henry Alekan’s cinematography and Cecil Beaton’s costumes can be admired, but even now, this movie lacks the kind of grand passion that supposedly ignited these star-crossed lover.
“Anna Karenina” is currently available for instant streaming on Netflix.