Classic Woman-Centric Movie Review: “Anna Karenina” (1948)

Happy Friday, all! Since another remake of “Anna Karenina,” based on the book by Tolstoy, is coming out this winter, I decided to review the 1948 version of it, which starred Vivien Leigh as the title character. The film also stars Ralph Richardson and Kieron Moore and was directed by Julien Duvivier.

Still from Anna Karenina; Anna sits on the floor and her husband stands nearby
Anna and Alexei

Anna Karenina (Leigh) is a spirited woman who is married to Count Alexei Karenin (Richardson), a government official who is indifferent toward his wife and more concerned about his career. She meets Count Vronsky (Moore) at a train station, and he is instantly smitten with her. He makes numerous attempts to confess his feelings for her, but she always rebuffs him, until he does so again at a ball. Anna eventually caves in to her desire for Vronsky, and he follows her to St. Petersburg, where their affair is fodder for society gossip. Alexei discovers the affair and, more concerned about how the scandal might adversely affect his career and standing in society, demands that Anna put an end to the affair or risk being cut off from her son. Anna runs away with Vronsky, even though it means that she will lose everything that she holds dear.

Anna and her lover, Vronsky, sit holding hands
Anna and Vronsky

The biggest question that comes up in “Anna Karenina” has to do with the differences between security and true happiness and the costs of choosing either one. Anna has made a good match, has given her husband a son and heir, and plays the role of society wife to Alexei. Regardless of this, she is unhappy because her husband doesn’t bother to look beyond himself and see that she also contributes to the marriage or even validate her as his wife. Vronsky, on the other hand, sees Anna for who she is and loves her for it, and Anna finds such passion to be exhilarating, so much so that she leaves everything behind to be with Vronsky.

But whatever Anna chooses, there is a cost to it. Anna can live as a society wife and remain at her husband’s side, but she knows that she will be very unhappy. Or she can run away with Vronsky and let the affair run its course. She will be able to taste some happiness, even for just a moment, because she made the choice to live on her own terms, despite what everyone might say about her. Perhaps this is why the story still rings true today, because it asks the audience whether it’s better to live in a gilded cage watching the world go by or to leave it, knowing that there are risks that come with it.

Anna in a gorgeous period dress and hat
A still from the film. The film also has gorgeous costumes, particularly Anna’s dresses. But we all watch period pieces for the dress porn, right?

As always, Leigh’s performance is flawless. She plays the role of Anna quite well, almost as though she can identify with the woman herself. Leigh’s marriage to actor Laurence Olivier could be quite rocky at times due to her mental illness and the struggle of two creative egos living together. Perhaps she channeled some of what she might have been feeling about her own life into the role of Anna, and perhaps this is why she seems like she truly is Anna Karenina.

While there are a lot of movies based on Anna Karenina, this one is not to miss. It’s always interesting to watch some of the movie versions of classic literature before a new release comes out, so be sure to put this one on your list.

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