Anna Karenina (1948): Julien Duvivier’s Version of Tolstoy’s Great Novel, Starring Vivien Leigh and Ralph Richardson

French director Julien Duvivier made this British version of the great 1877 Russian novel of the same title by Leo Tolstoy, starring Vivien Leigh.

Grade: B (*** out of *****)

Anna Karenina
AnnaKarenina Leigh.jpeg

Theatrical release poster (France)

I am partial to the 1935 version at MGM, starring the Divine Garbo and Fredric March, which was a huge critical and commercial hit.

Considered to be more faithful to Tolstoy’s novel, Duvivier’s version runs the excessive time of 139 minutes, compared to the Garbo’s movie, which is 95 minutes (44 minutes shorter!)

Anna Karenina (Leigh) is married to Alexei Karenin (Ralph Richardson), a detached government official in St. Petersburg who is career-drive, neglecting his wife’s needs. Called to Moscow by her brother Stepan Oblonsky, a reprobate unfaithful to his trusting wife Dolly, Anna meets Countess Vronsky on the night train. They discuss their sons, with the Countess showing Anna a photo of her young, handsome son, Count Vronsky (Kieron Moore), a cavalry officer.

Vronsky shows up at the train to meet his mother, and is instantly infatuated with Anna. He boldly makes his interest known to her, which Anna demurely pushes away – but not emphatically so. At a grand ball, Vronsky continues to pursue the married Anna, much to the delight of the gossiping spectators. But poor Kitty Shcherbatsky (Sally Ann Howes), Dolly’s sister who is smitten with Vronsky, is humiliated by his behavior and leaves the ball – much to the distress of Konstantin Levin (Niall MacGinnis), a suitor of Kitty’s who was rejected by her in favor of Vronsky. However, after a change of heart, Kitty marries Levin.

Following Anna back to St Petersburg, Vronsky makes it known to society that he is Anna’s companion. Soon, there’s gsspi and malicious whispering about the affair, and it’s only a matter of time before Karenin learns of the relationship.

Outwardly more worried about his social position than his wife’s passion, he orders her to break off with Vronsky or risk losing her son. She tries, but to no avail; she cannot tear herself away from Vronsky.

Leaving Karenin, Anna becomes pregnant with Vronsky’s child. Almost dying in childbirth (the child is stillborn), Anna begs Karenin for forgiveness, which he coldly grants. Karenin allows Vronsky the notion that he may visit Anna if she calls for him. Embarrassed by the scandal, Vronsky tries to shoot himself, but fails.

Anna tries again–in vain–to live with Karenin. She leaves Karenin for good, abandoning her child to live in Italy with Vronsky. But doubts over Vronsky’s feelings for her grow, and she eventually pushes him away. Realizing she has lost everything, Anna commits suicide by oncoming letting the train hit her.

Michael Redgrave was to play the male lead but elected to accept a Hollywood offer instead.

This lush remake was produced by Alexander Korda and his company London Films, and distributed in the U.S. by Fox, where it flopped.

The literary screenplay was penned by playwright Jean Anouilh, Duvivier, and Guy Morgan.

At the time, critics were impressed by Henri Alekan’s deep-focus cinematography.

This was the film debut for both Barbara Murray and Maxine Audley.

Vivien Leigh previously had an uncredited role as a schoolgirl extra in Things Are Looking Up, with Herbert Mason as associate producer.

Filming in London Film Studios, Shepperton started on April 15 1947.

Despite heavy promotion and lush premieres in London and NYC, the movie was a big commercial flop, failing even to recoup its budget.


Vivien Leigh as Anna Karenina
Ralph Richardson as Alexei Karenin
Kieron Moore as Count Vronsky
Hugh Dempster as Stefan Oblonsky
Mary Kerridge as Dolly Oblonsky
Marie Lohr as Princess Shcherbatsky
Frank Tickle as Prince Schcherbatsky
Sally Ann Howes as Kitty Shcherbatsky
Niall MacGinnis as Konstantin Levin
Bernard Rebel as Professor Leverrin
Michael Gough as Nicholai (Gough’s film debut)
Martita Hunt as Princess Betty Tversky
Heather Thatcher as Countess Lydia Ivanovna
Helen Haye as Countess Vronsky
Michael Medwin as Kitty’s doctor
Gino Cervi as Enrico
Beckett Bould as Matvey
Leslie Bradley as Korsunsky
Therese Giehse as Marietta
John Longden as General Serpuhousky
Mary Matlew as Princess Nathalia
Valentina Murch as Annushka
Judith Nelmes as Miss Hull
Ruby Miller as Countess Meskov
John Salew as Lawyer
Patrick Skipwith as Sergei
Ann South as Princess Sorokina
Jeremy Spenser as Giuseppe
Austin Trevor as Colonel Vronsky
Gus Verney as Prince Makhotin


Directed by Julien Duvivier
Written by JDuvivier Jean Anouilh, Guy Morgan, based on Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Produced by Alexander Korda
Cinematography Henri Alekan
Edited by Russell Lloyd
Music by Constant Lambert
Distributed by British Lion Films & London Films (UK); 20th Century Fox (US)

Release dates: 22 January 1948 (London premiere); April 27, 1948 (NYC); September 27, 1948 (UK)

Running time: 139 minutes
Budget £700,000
Box office: £159,000

End Note:

I am grateful to TCM, which showed the film on December 21, 2018.