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Tolstoy in art and on film

The portrait of Tolstoy currently on view at London’s National Portrait Gallery as part of the ‘Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky‘ exhibition shows the writer sitting at his desk, pen in hand, head bowed. Only six years after Anna Karenina was first published as a complete novel, Tolstoy had already cast aside his career as a professional writer in favour of proselytizing his ethics-based brand of Christianity. Ge’s 1884 portrait is an act of religious devotion by one of the writer’s first acolytes. He portrays Tolstoy dressed in black, his brow furrowed with concentration as he writes his first major tract, What I Believe, his mind clearly above such earthly and egotistical matters as posing and writing novels for commercial gain. Despite his new ascetic habits, Tolstoy never did quite become an anchorite. Another half dozen portraits would be completed over the course of the following three decades, including several by Ilya Repin, who reverently depicted his friend at the plough, in prayer, writing in spartan conditions, and sitting in lofty contemplation, like an Old Testament prophet.

Ge’s canvas of 1884 provides a stark contrast to Kramskoy’s more famous portrait of 1873, painted when Tolstoy had just begun Anna Karenina. In that portrait, in which Count Tolstoy looks out at us imperiously in his peasant shirt, he is every bit the ‘great writer of the Russian land’, as Turgenev would later define him. As an aristocrat also prone to snobbery, Tolstoy had initially refused point blank to have his portrait painted for Pavel Tretyakov’s gallery (Tretyakov’s merchant class status explicitly denoted his involvement with money), but he gave in when the wily Kramskoy approached him personally at home in Yasnaya Polyana. And in the end Tolstoy was so stimulated by their ensuing conversations during the sittings that he created the character of the artist Mikhailov in Anna Karenina. This enabled him to introduce overt discussions in the novel about art, portraiture and the role of the artist, and, on a more subliminal level explore the depiction, or rather objectification, of women. The portrait which Mikhailov paints of Anna is one of three separate paintings of her mentioned in the course of the novel, in which Tolstoy in compelling prose creates vivid portraits of diverse women from different walks of life to illustrate his exposition of their predicament in late nineteenth-century educated society.

In many ways, the directors who adapt works of literature for the screen are like portrait painters, in that they seek to present a coherent vision of a work of fiction in the concentrated space of a few hours’ viewing. From the beginning, pioneer film-makers wasted no time making screen versions of Tolstoy’s famous novels: cinematography was still in its infancy when the first adaptation of Anna Karenina was shown in 1911, only a year after Tolstoy’s death. Despite his calls for people to go back to a simple life of tilling the soil, Tolstoy was fascinated by technology, and was himself immortalized on celluloid on the occasion of his eightieth birthday in 1908 (although he was so famous by that time that many Russians remained convinced they were seeing an actor playing the great sage of Yasnaya Polyana). All the same, he would probably have taken a dim view of the twenty odd screen adaptations of Anna Karenina, not to mention the half dozen versions of War and Peace, which have followed.

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Portrait Of Leo Tolstoy by Ivan Kramskoy, Public Domain via WikiArt.org

Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic film of War and Peace (1966-1967) notwithstanding, it is the television adaptations of Tolstoy’s novels which have been the most successful, their more leisurely approach allowing for more chiaroscuro. There are many who still retain a great affection for the twenty-part series of War and Peace made by the BBC in 1972, but no doubt many more who share the view that the triumphant 2016 six-part BBC adaptation should have been much longer. The problem with cinematic adaptations of Tolstoy’s complex and richly-layered novels is that they run the risk of caricature. Feature films of Anna Karenina in particular have inevitably concentrated on Anna and Vronsky’s romance, at the expense of all the accompanying chapters designed to make us question the nature of relationships between men and women, while characters like the artist Mikhailov rarely even make it on to the drawing board. There is much to admire in Joe Wright’s spirited 2012 film, starring Keira Knightly and Jude Law, for example, but the very ambition to embrace so much of the novel produces mixed results.

The very best adaptations of Tolstoy’s fiction, whether for small or large screen, are those where the director has transposed the work into a quite different setting and time period. This is the case with Aleksey Balabanov’s superlative 1996 film Prisoner of the Caucasus, in which Tolstoy’s 1870 short story of imperial Russian conquest is updated to the current-day war in Chechnya. It is the case with Bernard Rose’s film Ivans xtc (2000), which updates The Death of Ivan Ilych by recasting the central character (a searing performance by Danny Huston) as a Hollywood agent diagnosed with terminal cancer. And it is spectacularly the case with The Beautiful Lie, a six-part television adaption of Anna Karenina made by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2015, directed by Glendyn Ivin and Peter Salmon. The brilliance of Alice Bell and Jonathan Gavin’s screenplay, which effortlessly transfers the complexities of marital dysfunction in aristocratic late imperial Russia to modern-day Melbourne, transforming Anna and Karenin into tennis celebrities, Vronsky into an indie record producer, Levin into a country vet, and his brother into an alcoholic, is matched by the sensitive acting of a peerless cast (including Sarah Snook, Benedict Samuel, Rodger Corser, Celia Pacquola, Sophie Lowe, Daniel Henhsall and Alexander England), and enhanced by a moving score. A typically heartwrenching scene has the tongue-tied Levin communicating his love for Kitty not with chalk on a card table, but with magnetic letters on a fridge. There are many other such deft touches as well as uncomfortable moments of truth which make us think continually of the novel, for once not in irritation at the liberties taken with Tolstoy’s text, but in wonder at the ingenious and perceptive ways in which it has been re-imagined, reinforcing its relevance to all our lives.

Featured image: Anna Karenina film poster. From the 2012 film starring Keira Knightly and directed by Joe Wright.

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