Friday, December 07, 2018

Russian Film Week ‘18: Anna Karenina. Vronsky’s Story

Few literary characters are as universally despised as Count Vronsky in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Generally, he is pegged somewhere between a cad and a heel. Nevertheless, he deserves the chance to tell his side of the classic story, especially since he has an interested listener in Karen Shakhnazarov’s Anna Karenina. Vronsky’s Story (trailer here), which screens as part of Russian Film Week in New York.

There might be subtle differences in interpretation, but the events that happened in St. Petersburg are still quite faithful to Tolstoy’s novel. The wrap-around segments are based on the fictionalized but still very autobiographical writings of Vikenty Veresaev. Anna Karenina’s son Sergei takes Veresaev’s place as a doctor during the 1904 Russian-Japanese War. Clearly, the fighting in Manchuria has gone poorly for the Czar’s army, when even a staff officer like Col. Vronsky has been wounded. Of course, Vronsky and Karenin know exactly who they are. They also have unresolved feelings for Anna. As he recuperates, Vronsky explains the tragic events, most of which were kept secret from Karenin by his controlling father.

What happened was the story of Anna Karenina, which you really ought to be familiar with. It is rather fascinating how closely Shakhnazarov and co-screenwriter Yuriy Poteenko hew to the original Tolstoy, yet they still manage to recast Vronsky as an unexpectedly sympathetic character. On the other hand, the senior Karenin comes across like a bitter, moralizing misanthrope, while Karenina is portrayed as a problematically unstable and self-centered drama queen.

That is all quite an interesting take on Tolstoy, but the biggest surprise is the success of the Veresaev-inspired scenes in Manchuria, which are quite compelling. Max Matveev necessarily digs deeper as the older, more remorseful Vronsky. He also forges a rather poignant rapport with Sofia Sun’s Chunsheng, a Chinese orphan girl Vronsky takes under his wing.

The feature cut of Vronsky’s Story is culled from Shakhnazarov’s eight-part miniseries, but it really does not feel like it is missing anything. The way it marries together Tolstoy and Veresaev is really very clever, but Tass still manages to overstate matters. It erroneously claims Vronsky’s Story would be nominated for an Academy Award and Shakhnazarov, the Putin supporting director general of Mosfilm has already been nominated for Oscars three times before. The truth is Russia previously submitted three of his films in the foreign language category, but the Academy chose not to nominate them. This time around, Russia declined to submit Vronsky’s Story, in favor of Sobibor. Despite the disinformation disseminated on Shakhnazarov’s behalf, Anna Karenina. Vronsky’s Story is a classy and engaging film, definitely recommended when it screens Sunday (12/9), as part of this year’s Russian Film Week in New York.