This version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, made A.G. (After Garbo), was not a success when it was first released, and it’s still a failure now, but it’s an often exquisitely sumptuous misfire, all the same. The veddy British cast performs Russian material directed by a Frenchman (Julien Duvivier), so everybody is slightly overwhelmed or at cross purposes. Taking advantage of the confusion, costume designer and bon vivant Cecil Beaton seems to have seized complete control of the film’s elegant, sensual look: it’s all heavy furniture and furs and lace, with sparkling jewels and ropes of pearls standing out in Vivien Leigh’s tower of raven black hair. It has a sleepy rhythm most of the time, but comes suddenly to life at key moments, such as the memorable point when Leigh’s Anna is swept up by love for Vronsky (Kieron Moore), expressed through diaphanous whirls of snow and a deliberately shaky dolly shot to make us feel her swoon. Otherwise, Duvivier provides a soft cushion for the cast, but that’s all.
This is a vehicle for Leigh from the moment we first see her cat-like face through a train door window, weighed down by worry, on the brink of madness, longing for calm. Most of the first half lingers on this actress’s muffled, neurotic sense of slipping entitlement: she’s well past Scarlett O’ Hara, and this movie is a rickety bridge she takes to the darker byways of Blanche DuBois. Leigh’s movements are stagy, and her over-cultivated voice is stuffy and inexpressive: her face and especially her eyes do the work that her body and voice can’t. She does catch a richly morbid sense of Anna’s pull toward death, and definitely knows that she has to pass through sex to get to her goal (sex with anyone, really) and Moore’s Vronsky is such a cipher that he could be anyone.
Leigh is more of a presence here than an actress, which is why masterful Ralph Richardson, who briskly plays her cuckolded husband, wipes her right off the screen in their scenes together. Leigh seems listlessly depressed toward the end, but she rallies for the climax, faultlessly creating the chilly objectivity before a suicide (tellingly, she achieves this effect by lowering her voice, a choice which marks her later work, sometimes disturbingly). This cannot be called a successful film, or a successful performance from its star, but it is a haunting one. It’s worth seeing just for the moment when Leigh tips her face upward toward a streetlamp, like a moth, or a child, and says, “Why not turn out the lights…when there is nothing more to be seen?” Blanche DuBois would probably concur.