A typical example of inappropriate casting

Terrence Rafferty has an interesting article in the New York Times on the latest movie version (gosh, how how many have there been by now?) of Anna Karenina, discussing the failures of the previous versions to be faithful to the novel. The director, Joe (not Joseph?) Wright, says that the earlier movies tended to romanticize the Anna/Vronsky relationship as a grand love story and/or to turn the book into a “women’s picture” about how women can’t catch a break in a man’s world, and that both approaches are false to Tolstoy’s intentions. Tolstoy was of course highly critical (I would even say too critical) of his heroine.

The movie sounds interesting and I would be tempted to see it, but for one major problem. Can you imagine that cold, narcissistic Keira Knightley (who, moreover, is only 27) playing Anna Karenina, with all her inner fires and torments?

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Carol Iannone writes:

Interesting point. You have an eye for these things. Knightley was good as Elizabeth Bennet, a cooler kind of character.

Felicie C. writes:

Keira Knightly’s age is right. Anna Karenina is about 28. She married Karenin when she was very young, a teenager. Her son Seryozha is eight. But Keira Knightley is, of course, completely wrong for the role of Anna Karenina, even physically. Anna is described as plump on several occasions. She has dark, curly hair and gray, luminous eyes. The only matching detail between Anna and Keira Knightly is dark hair. Neither does Knightly project the right “aura.” Anna is playful and flirty, but also passionate and mercurial. She can also be kind and generous (as witnessed by her intervention in Stiva and Dolly’s marital discord). I just don’t see Keira Knightley hitting the right notes.

The best Anna Karenina (albeit too old) was Tatyana Samoylova in the 1960s Russian version. Why make yet another adaptation of this great classic? No Western actress is capable of playing Anna Karenina, in my opinion. She is not made of the right stuff. She doesn’t have what it takes. Her emotional repertoire spans different registers. Can you imagine a Russian version of Middlemarch—how ridiculous it would be? Can you imagine a Russian actress playing Dorothea Brooke or Isabel Archer? Leave the Russian classics for the Russians. Some excellent Russian adaptations of the Russians classics have been made in the last decade, such as Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Sorry, but in cases like this, I join the “denounce American cultural imperialism” crowd, although the film might be British, I am not sure. But you know what I mean. I react to the hubris of thinking one is qualified for the job of adapting a foreign classic.

LA replies:

Well, if it’s hubris, it is a very common type of hubris.

I’ve always thought of Anna as being in her early thirties at the beginning of the novel, a settled (and about to be unsettled) young matron; but maybe that’s wrong.

November 25

A female reader in England writes:

Nobody ever seems to mention the 1977 BBC mini-series version of Anna Karenina. I haven’t seen it in years, but as I remember Nicola Paget’s Anna was pretty good. Although I last saw it at the time it was screened, and that was a long time ago, I think she did a good job of “playing Anna Karenina, with all her inner fires and torments.”

Paget is bi-polar which might explain her intense performance as Anna.

Stephen W. writes:

There is an especially good adaptation of Anna Karenina (starring Nicola Pagett) that aired in 1977 on the BBC as a ten-part series. It is currently available on YouTube. It is the only production I’ve seen that succeeds in both reproducing the full breadth of the novel (including the story of Levin, usually swept aside in all the “potboiler” versions) and putting the correct “spin” on Anna, Vronsky and Karenin—all of whom, in my opinion, are deliberately misunderstood in most productions. Anna’s descent into self-pitying narcissism is depicted superbly.

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

Tolstoy’s novel is attractive to Hollywood producers because it affords an opportunity for spectacle—the costumes of the Russian bourgeoisie and lower aristocracy, the Italianate architecture of nineteenth century Moscow, lavish balls to music by Tchaikovsky and Glazunov, steam locomotives, soldiery, and much else. The spectacle will be ninety per cent of the film. The casting director will have used the basic formula for all movies—pretty young things, whose self-evident narcissism makes them attractive to the narcissistically inclined target audience. Keira Knightley is a pretty young thing although she is no longer quite so fetching as when she appeared in King Arthur opposite Clive Owen in 2004. By the way, Jude Law, who plays Vronsky, is at least as repellent, spiritually, as Knightley. I can’t watch him any more than I can watch Brad Pitt or Matt Damon.

While British and American directors can’t do justice to Russian narrative (think of the horrible King Vidor film of War and Peace and the wretched Richard Brooks film of The Brothers Karamazov—1956 and 1958 respectively), Russian directors have done well with Anglo-Saxon material, especially with Shakespeare. Gigory Kozinstev’s Hamlet (1964), with a score by none other than Dmitri Shostakovich, is remarkably true to its source, eschewing the spectacle that weighed down the Branagh version (1990), while confining itself to one hundred taut minutes.

James P. writes:

Look on the bright side—at least Keira Knightley is white. =)

Alan Roebuck writes:

Thomas Bertonneau reports that Jude Law plays Vronsky. Actually, Law plays Karenin, and Aaron Johnson (never heard of him) plays Vronsky.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at November 24, 2012 06:41 PM | Send

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