Cult Russian avant-garde director Sergei Solovyov brought the three women he loves most to London in November: his daughter, his muse and Anna Karenina. Anna Karenina, his latest film, was shown at the Apollo Theatre during the Russian Film Festival.
Solovyov’s daughter, Anna, wrote the score. The muse is his former wife and the longtime star of all his pictures, Tatiana Drubich. With her sad eyes and mournful mouth, Drubich has become one of the subtlest and most sophisticated Russian actresses working today. She starred, for instance, in the enormously popular Russian screen version of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, playing the unfortunate governess, “the last little Indian”.
Solovyov could not have allowed himself to pick a less refined and charismatic actress to play Anna Karenina; moviegoers and the press would have jumped all over him. The debates as to whether the last Soviet actress to tackle the role, Tatiana Samoilova, was the real Anna Karenina went on for years. Jealousy played no small part: every reader of Tolstoy’s novel has his own vision of Anna and will accept no other. For the world's film critics to decide who was the best – Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh, Sophie Marceau, Alla Tarasova, Tatiana Samoilova or Tatiana Drubich – would be an impossible task.
The director told us: “My American friend, the actor Richard Gere, once said to me: ‘You know, 98pc of the women in Hollywood dream of playing Anna Karenina. True, few of them have read the book.’”
But since Gere made his pronouncement, Tolstoy’s novel has become popular fiction in America thanks to the recommendation of TV godmother Oprah Winfrey, who advised her millions of viewers to stop spending astronomical sums on psychotherapy and instead look for answers to the question of what is “good” and what is “bad” in Anna Karenina.
When Solovyov was first toying with the idea of filming his own Anna Karenina, American producers arrived in Moscow with a view to underwriting the project. The men from Hollywood, however, said the American public would never accept the novel’s tragic ending and demanded that it be rewritten. Solovyov almost gave in to “this insanity”, even considering rewriting Anna Karenina’s destiny, but then thought better of it. The producers returned to America without Anna Karenina and Solovyov returned to his senses.
Tolstoy’s novel has also enjoyed a renaissance in Britain thanks to Penguin’s publication of a new and remarkably fresh translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
Sergei Solovyov told us that this film, which was a torture to make, is his declaration of love for Anna Karenina: “This novel is not about betrayal, but about love. About the cost of love. And it costs very dear, sometimes even one’s life.”
Solovyov compared his film to a translation of the novel not in prose, but in blank verse, which is more appropriate when talking about love.
This family drama was filmed by a family team, including Solovyov’s former wife and his daughter, Anna, then a student at the Higher School of Music in Munich. Solovyov brought Anna on board by asking her to write just a “little waltz” to which her mother could rehearse the dancing scene.
But if it took Leo Tolstoy some four years to create his novel, it took Solovyov fully 15 years to produce his screen version. During that time Drubich became a grandmother. One might make jokes about how much work this required of the film’s make-up artists, but during this long drawn-out filming process, there was more sorrow than humour: neither Oleg Yankovsky nor Alexander Abdulov, the celebrated Russian actors who played major roles in the film, lived to see the final cut.
“I hate to spend a long time filming, I start getting red spots on my hands,” said Solovyov. “Before Anna was hit by a train, we were hit by all the affairs and shady deals of the difficult 1990s in Russia. Including the default of 1998. The money earmarked for the film was constantly cut.”
Anna Karenina in Solovyov’s interpretation is an untraditional Anna. She is more exposed in all senses of the word. Drubich is the first Anna to appear naked on the screen. She is also painfully vulnerable, egotistical and constantly taking morphine (Solovyov makes a point of this). How this film will fare with audiences remains an open question. But the interpretation of this great 19th-century Russian novel by an avant-garde filmmaker of the 21st is intriguing in itself.