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Russia gives new 'Anna Karenina' a chilly reception

January 21, 2013

MOSCOW: The latest film version of Leo Tolstoy's “Anna Karenina” has prompted a storm of passions in Russia where some critics have slammed it as cliched, shallow and insulting to Tolstoy's monumental work.

British director Joe Wright's costume drama starring Keira Knightley in the title role opened in Russian cinemas this month but its reception highlighted how hard it is for foreign versions of Russian classics to win recognition in the country.

“This is like a lavishly illustrated, glossy children's primer,” wrote the Izvestia daily. “Anna Karenina has been crushed by the scenery,” wrote Kommersant business daily, saying that Wright's stagey concept of setting the film in a theatre made it “hard to take it too much to heart.”

"From the very first minutes of Anna Karenina, your heart sinks at the excessive production," wrote Boris Nelepo on Afisha lifestyle magazine's website. “This constant scenery-changing is the only device, a fairground attraction at the heart of the film.”

The new film version faced a tough audience of Tolstoy buffs in Russia, where it was released January 10 and has made $4.7 million, according to Variety Russia magazine.

Here school children are forced to read Tolstoy's “War and Peace” in its entirety and even those who skip “Anna Karenina” are familiar with a 1967 Soviet film version starring eyelash-fluttering Tatyana Samoilova.

Nit-picking critics and viewers slammed howlers in the new film such as aristocrat Levin living in what appears to be a peasant's wooden hut - topped with onion domes.

“Two hours of absurdity,” one commentator wrote on the Kommersant website. “It's not bad if you watch it as a comedy.”Wright's Bafta-nominated film was scripted by Tom Stoppard, who is a regular visitor to Russia and wrote his “The Coast of Utopia” trilogy about Russian thinkers.

The film “could only be bought and released in Russia in a state of complete moral collapse,” thundered award-winning biographer and poet Dmitry Bykov on arts website.

He slammed it for “making a mockery” of the novel and even suggested passing an “anti-Wright law putting a parliamentary embargo on all Keira Knightley's future films.”

'The English Karenina is too bony'

Anna Karenina has previously been played by a long line of screen sirens including Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh and French actress Sophie Marceau. A recent Russian film version by veteran director Sergei Solovyov starred his muse Tatiana Drubich as Karenina at the age of 49, but was never given a theatrical release despite critical praise.

Many Russians complained that Knightley did not fit their visual idea of Karenina.

“The English Karenina is too bony,” Trud newspaper wrote, while Izvestia complained that her show-stopping designer dresses were inauthentic because in the novel Anna Karenina economically made over her old dresses.

“She is so unlike our picture of Anna, especially if you compare the thin actress with Alla Tarasova, Vivien Leigh, Greta Garbo or Tatyana Samoilova,”wrote Novaya Gazeta.

“Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina? She would be about as suitable casting in a biopic of Marilyn Monroe... The point of her plumpness was that Karenina loved life and pleasures and was also a mother,” wrote one commentator on the Moscow Echo website.

“Keira Knightley does not have the figure of a Russian woman of the time. She needs to put on 10-15 kilogrammes,” wrote a commentator on Afisha website. Yet a poll by website found that she was the second-best Anna Karenina, after Samoilova.

Novaya Gazeta also slammed Aaron Taylor-Johnson's performance as Karenina's virile lover Vronsky, saying he looked “like a parody of the literary original.”While criticism of Wright's film in Russia was perhaps inevitable, the reception was not all bad with some critics praising his innovative approach.

“The choreographic stylised approach... is about freeing us from pompousness and the extreme seriousness of academia,” wrote Novaya Gazeta. “This is a modern screen version, a very English blockbuster, where the immediate wow-effect does not mean the material has not been developed in the deepest way,” wrote Maria Kuvshinova in Afisha magazine.

“If you were afraid of a new film version of a Russian classic with crinolines, vodka and balalaikas, face your fears and walk straight in - just like Anna stepped under the train.”