Thursday, January 02, 2003


Spoilers included!
I must admit I've never been able to get through Tolstoy's classic novel, and until the other day, I'd never seen more than a few minutes of any film version. David Selznick gives the material a very nice production with grand sets, sumptuous costumes, and some luminous cinematography. Still, I imagine Tolstoy's story could have been better served, as I felt very little for any of the characters, due to bland writing and mostly average acting. Greta Garbo is Anna, the wife of strutting ass Basil Rathbone. On a trip to see relatives, Anna meets the dashing military man Count Vronsky (Fredric March). For a while, she fights her attraction to him but eventually gives in and has an affair. Rathbone won't give Garbo a divorce, so she leaves him to live with March. Rathbone has banned Garbo from having any contact with their son (Freddie Bartholomew; and since it's still that time of year, why did this kid never play Tiny Tim?), telling the boy that his mother is dead. She makes one last visit and soon after, things with March go downhill when he chooses voluntary military action over lolling about in the country with Garbo. She catches him flirting with another woman as he leaves for the front and, thinking that both of her "family" options are no longer viable, throws herself in front of a train, or more precisely, between moving train cars, in a climax that is nicely foreshadowed by an early scene of a man who is accidently killed in the same way.

Physically, Garbo is lovely and ethereal, but because Garbo always played passion very much on the surface, I never feel like I know what's going on inside her. March is mostly deadly dull in the part; I never saw what Anna saw in him to inspire her reckless behavior. Rathbone gives the best performance in the film as a man we love to hate. The only actor who could have done the part better is Erich von Stroheim--in fact, he did play a similar role in the 1931 FRIENDS AND LOVERS. Shining in the supporting cast are Reginald Owen, Maureen O'Sullivan and May Robson. There are some striking scenes: an long tracking shot of a military banquet table, a lovely ball, a glowing garden scene, and some nice use of snow. The plot feels a lot like an Edith Wharton "lesson" about society and family and the price we pay when we choose to go our own way. I'd like to track down the Vivien Leigh version; what I really should do, I guess, is buckle down and read the book!

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