After four fraught hours of fur hats, ice skates, country houses, piano music, servants, horses, vodka, and fog – plus, of course, the famous ball and the notorious choo-choo train, not to mention the cinematic equivalent of what Vladimir Nabokov once called a Russian-language gloat “over the beauty of black earth, white flesh, blue snow, green fields, and purple thunderclouds” – there is no question in my mind that this week’s Masterpiece Theatre mini-series is the best account of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina on any screen so far. Be warned, though, that I belong to a truculent minority who rather wish Leo had stuck to his original plan of a novel about Peter the Great instead of adultery.
In 1935, we were asked to admire Garbo as the doomed heroine, with Fredric March as Vronsky and Basil Rathbone as the cuckold; in 1948, Vivien Leigh, with Kieron Moore and Ralph Richardson; and, in 1985 on American television, Jacqueline Bisset, with Christopher Reeve and Paul Scofield. What all three versions neglected was the novel’s parallel pairings of Kitty-Levin and Dolly-Oblonsky. (There is yet another, kinkier pair: Vronsky and his mother. But Freud has never been popular in Russia.)
Never mind that Kitty and Levin are such super-Goody Two-shoes you want to hit them on their noble noodles with one of the Von Trapp children. But Levin’s love for the equally pure-hearted Kitty is tender and, well, Christian, pointed away from the egotism of sensuality, toward the joys of family life. He is obviously based on Leo himself, going on at such digressive length about the agrarian problem. Likewise, Dolly sticks with Oblonsky despite his philandering, because of the children. As Nabokov pointed out in his remarkable lecture on the novel, Tolstoy punishes Anna with a locomotive not for her “immorality” – what right had society to judge her when all over nineteenth-century Russia well-born women secretly slept with men who weren’t their husbands? – but for her carnality, her sinful selfishness. Kitty and Dolly are counterexamples.
Nabokov, as usual, then went too far, suggesting that if society had no right to judge Anna, nor had Anna any right to revenge herself on Vronsky by committing suicide. Vronsky’s feelings are beside the point. Lucky for him there was a convenient war with Turkey to get him out of town. Anna Karenina is not a Flaubert novel. (In fact, Madame Bovary beat it to the punch by twenty years.) Nor an Updike novel. (To be sure, Updike’s novels are Christian and adulterous, but not suicidal.) It’s more like a Mary McCarthy novel – specifically, A Charmed Life, in which the adulterous heroine had to kill herself off in a car crash. (No wonder that at a Bard College party where all the guests had to dress up as their favorite characters in one or another Russian novel, Mary McCarthy appeared as Anna.)
Anyway, in Allan Cubitt’s Masterpiece Theatre screenplay, Kitty (Paloma Baeza), Levin (Douglas Henshall), Dolly (Amanda Root), and Oblonsky (Mark Strong) receive almost equal time with the tempestuous Anna (Helen McCrory), impetuous Vronsky (Kevin McKidd), and careerist Karenin (Stephen Dillane). And Kitty, Dolly, and Anna are equally cutie-pies – even if McKidd’s dashing cavalry officer is still the only curly-blond hunk, and, among the ladies, McCrory’s Anna has the loveliest white neck. Moreover, improving greatly on the nineteenth century in general and the Constance Garnett translation in particular, the mini-series lets us actually see some of that carnality. There are fewer purple thunderclouds and more greedy clinches. About the only problem Cubitt can’t solve is Alexei Karenin’s ears. Until she meets Vronsky, Anna has never noticed how homely her husband’s ears are. This is one reason why novels are better than movies.
Without turning this notice into a monograph on adultery, I recommend some comparison shopping. Faithless, the new Liv Ullmann weepie based on an Ingmar Bergman screenplay, seems even longer than Anna Karenina, and more lugubrious. After adulterous behavior, everybody in Faithless commits suicide except the cad who’s obviously based on Ingmar himself; he gets to feel bad by the seaside. Not for a minute do I believe that Swedes have more to reproach themselves for than Russians, with the possible exception of Ingmar Bergman. This is another reason why novels are better than movies.
since the networks seem almost to have abandoned “sweeps” programming in fear and trembling over the ramifications of Australia in the raw, extreme football, and sexual bondage, it’s a sweet week for public television. David Grubin’s Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided weighs in at six splendid hours spread over three consecutive nights, with David Morse as the voice of Abe, Holly Hunter as the voice of Mary, and the usual hackle of historians telling us what to think, from David Herbert Donald, John Hope Franklin, and Doris Kearns Goodwin to James McPherson, Charles Strozier, and Margaret Washington.
This, of course, is the American Passion Play. Grateful as I am to Grubin for this scrupulous and absorbing tapestry of old stills and fresh opinions, it’s a story that needs an opera. And at least one part of it actually got one a couple of decades ago on the NET Opera Theatre, when composer Thomas Pasatieri and librettist Anne Howard Bailey teamed up with mezzo-soprano Elaine Bonazzi to sit in on The Trial of Mary Lincoln, in 1875, when the president’s widow was declared insane at the insistence of her only surviving son, the regrettable Robert, who also sold out Eugene V. Debs and the American working class.
More unusual is Secrets of the Pharaohs, a three-parter, in which the eighteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt is reexamined according to DNA samples sucked out of the very mummies found in the pyramids and royal tomb-caves. It may surprise you to learn that brother-sister inbreeding does not explain why that 200-year-old dynasty ended with Tutankhamen and the pair of stillborns buried next to him in the middle of the second millennium B.C.E. Nor were the pyramids at Giza built by slave labor. And the explanation for the blue lotus we see in so many murals of the period turns out to be that it was an extremely popular Old Kingdom version of Viagra.
Bob Marley: Rebel Music (February 14; 9:30 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) is an American Masters installment devoted to the life and music of the reggae troublemaker from Jamaica, with the on-camera testimony of several of the women in his life at least as astonishing as the music he made – more generously sampled later in the program than earlier on – in the blood of Caribbean politics and the clouds of marijuana smoke.
Hopes on the Horizon (February 16; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13), from the Blackside production team that gave us Eyes on the Prize, finds persuasive evidence for optimism in modern Africa – in democracy movements in Benin and Nigeria, in women’s movements in Morocco and Mozambique, in a gathering of historians to rewrite the future of Rwanda, and in the rebirth of a secondary school in South Africa. For once, Africans get to tell their own story.
They Call Me Sirr (February 18; 8 to 9:30 p.m.; Showtime) is a docudramatizing of the inspirational story of a young high-school football player, Sirr Parker (Kenté Scott), who grew up against the odds of a bad neighborhood and a drug-addicted mother to become, with the help of a reluctant father-figure coach (Michael Clarke Duncan), a professional athlete and a role model with the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Ballad of Lucy Whipple (February 18; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS) lets Jena Malone, as a feisty teenager transplanted from the East to an Old West mining town, not only build a library but also steal a TV movie from such seasoned professionals as Glenn Close (her mother), Robert Pastorelli (a preacher), and Meat Loaf (a tall-tale teller). Malone, who starred previously in Anjelica Huston’s cable-TV version of Bastard Out of Carolina, is the genuine thing.
The Princess & the Marine (February 18; 9 to 11 p.m.; NBC) stars teen throbs Marisol Nichols and Mark-Paul Gosselaar in a true-life cross-cultural, pimple-causing Romeo and Juliet story set half in unamused Bahrain, the other half in always amusing Las Vegas. The marine has already been court-martialed for helping the princess enter this country illegally, and the princess, even as we speak, faces her fifth INS asylum hearing.
Sundays, February 18 and 25; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13.
Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided
Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, February 19, 20, and 21; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13.
Secrets of the Pharaohs
Tuesdays, February 13, 20, and 27; 8 to 9 p.m.; Channel 13.