Leo Tolstoy's epic 19th century novel "Anna Karenina" has been filmed many times--with the likes of Vivien Leigh and Greta Garbo (twice) in the pivotal female role--but never more grandly or arrestingly than a British two-parter coming to "Masterpiece Theatre."
Anna is the beautiful, respected beacon of St. Petersburg society whose passionate affair with the dashing Count Vronsky estranges her from her husband, Alexei Karenin, severs her from her young son and destroys her life. When we meet her she is radiant. Yet eventually her degeneration is complete, her wheel of misfortune beginning and ending at a railway station where she first meets Vronsky by chance and much later throws herself under a moving train, believing that he's rejected her for another woman.
Actually, Tolstoy's novel gives about equal weight to two families, the other being prosperous landowner Konstantine Levin and his wife, Kitty, whose simpler values and comparative bliss the author contrasts sharply with the prickly turbulence of the Anna-Alexi-Vronsky crowd.
As Tolstoy writes: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
The unhappy one is granted center stage in most earlier film versions, the feeling having been that with Garbo or Leigh as Anna, for example, why divert eyes? In addition, the Anna story is so robust that hardly is there room in a conventional movie for much of Levin, an aristocrat whose pleasure from physical toil and working beside peasants on his estate resembles the life that Tolstoy--a count himself--assumed after rejecting the wealth and artificiality of Anna's decadent universe.
The Levin facet of "Anna Karenina" is left to this latest TV miniseries, as it was to an admirable 10-part production that aired on "Masterpiece Theatre" in 1977 with ravishing Nicola Pagett as Anna.
Some of the casting here is a bit off center, starting with Helen McCrory, who is not the young, decorous Anna you'd envision putting the va-va-voom in Vronsky. It's a hot performance that McCrory gives, however, wearing her agonies and passions memorably while playing despairing Anna to the tragic hilt opposite Kevin McKidd's boyish count and Stephen Dillane's smug, ambitious, cool-hearted Alexi.
And if Douglas Henshall's Levin sounds like the Great Scot when sweet-talking luminous Paloma Baeza as Kitty, where is it written that Russians in a Tolstoy story all must sound like upper-crust Brits?
Alan Cubitt's adaptation provides probably the lustiest ever "Anna Karenina," meanwhile, with Anna straddling a nude Vronsky at one point, and Kitty being stopped out of propriety by the just-married Levin from servicing him as his whores did when he was single.
John Keane's thumping contemporary score, Rob Harris' sumptuous production design and David Blair's stylish direction, too, separate this "Anna Karenina" from others. Blair has his fluid camera shooting acrobatically from odd angles, for example, and when Anna is hurtling out of control toward her crackup; this looks like Tolstoy, the LSD version.
The distinctive pizazz doesn't at all detract, however. It's just another way of telling a story with enduring appeal.
* Part 1 of "Masterpiece Theatre's" "Anna Karenina" can be seen Sunday at 9 p.m. on KCET-TV and KVCR-TV. It concludes with Part 2 on Feb. 25 at 9 p.m.