Anna Karenina (1948)
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” wrote Leo Tolstoy at the beginning of his novel Anna Karenina. And unhappy families are abundant in the 1948 film adaptation of Tolstoy’s work.
The story opens with Anna (Vivien Leigh) on a journey to visit her brother’s family. His indiscretions with another woman have caused an understandable rift between Stefan (Hugh Dempster) and his wife Dolly (Mary Kerridge). Anna swoops in to set things right and restore matrimonial bliss by encouraging her sister-in-law to forgive her husband’s foibles.
However Anna is about to fall prey to the same weakness as her brother. After traveling on the train with Countess Vronsky (Helen Haye), Anna meets the woman’s charming son, Count Vronsky (Kieron Moore), who is immediately smitten with her. Despite the fact she Anna is a married woman, the Count follows the aristocrat to numerous social events in St. Petersburg like an overeager puppy. Finally, he convinces Anna he has eyes for her only. The admission breaks the heart of the young Kitty Shcherbatsky (Sally Ann Howes) who hopes to marry the Count. As well, it disturbs Anna’s husband Alexei Karenina (Ralph Richardson) who sees his wife’s affair as an embarrassment and distraction to his political career.
With the Count’s affections known, Anna soon tires of what she considers a loveless marriage to a much older man. Throwing off her marital commitments and leaving her son behind, she runs away to Italy with the Count, becomes pregnant and nearly loses her life. However, Alexei still refuses to grant her a divorce and keeps Anna from doing the one thing she thinks she wants more than any other—to marry the Count.
Adapted numerous times for the big screen, Anna Karenina opens with tragedy when a moving train crushes a worker caught on the tracks. His death foreshadows what follows when the headstrong woman gives into her passions. Along with the painful results of her infidelity and the emotional instability she causes others is the devastating effect Anna’s choices have on her own life. Even in the arms of her lover, she broods over being an outcast among her social peers, yearns for lost friendships and is given to moments of jealousy and suspicion when the Count goes away on business.
Warned from the start about the impending unhappiness of this capricious character, audiences can’t expect a cheerful outcome. Yet like tragic literary heroines before, Anna Karenina commands attention—the kind demanded from a crowd waiting for an inevitable train wreck.