Is it really time for another ``Anna Karenina''? There was Greta Garbo (1928 and 1935) and Vivien Leigh (1948) in the movie versions of Leo Tolstoy's classic novel about a woman who broke society's rules in imperial Russia. And Nicola Pagett in a 10-hour BBC/WGBH Masterpiece Theatre miniseries for TV (1978). So do we need another Anna now?
The easy answer would seem to be ``no, not again'' -- until you start watching Jacqueline Bisset's Anna Karenina (CBS, Tuesday, 8-11 p.m.) in which she gives the best performance of her career, probably an Emmy-award-winning accomplishment. Then the answer becomes a resounding ``yes.''
Garbo, Leigh, and Pagett had better look to their laurels. Bisset's Anna is a penetrating characterization in a superb adaptation of this familiar drama, which happens to occur in Russia (filmed in this case in Hungary where BBC also shot it's fine miniseries version).
Instead of focusing on the manners, mores, and politics of imperial Russia, this James Goldman (``Lion in Winter'') script interprets the Tolstoy novel almost totally in terms of the universality of human emotions. It is a soft-focus study in hard-headed infatuation and its relationship to love, compulsion, and obsession. Pride and revenge are allowed to coexist with guilt and retribution.
Even Christopher (``Superman'') Reeves, who plays the role of the lover a bit like Clark Kentovich at the beginning, finally manages to integrate his own cool persona into a fairly believable Count Vronski, the object of Anna's all-consuming obsession. However, his British accent can only be accounted for by the fact that so much of the cast, as well as the director, are British. Consummate actor, Paul Scofield, underplays his role of Karenin with a repressed passion which will have you hating and pitying the man simultaneously. The troupe of additional fine British actors -- among them, Anna Massey, Judi Bowker, and Joanna David -- perform with ensemble-like brilliance.
The story of a married woman's overpowering love for another man, and her determination to disregard the era's accepted behavior for a woman, wife, and mother, is treated by Goldman's script and Bisset's interpretation as more a descent into madness than a mere emotional attempt to bypass convention. Producer/director Simon Langton, helped immeasurably by authentic costumes, evocative sets, and locations, leads his cast through a simplified but not simple-minded condensation of the Tolstoy novel.
There are hints and echoes of contemporary relevance -- at moments one is led to wonder about the complusion to ``have it all'' at any cost without too much attention paid to ``normal'' obligations, responsibilities, duties. And yet, it is clearly implied that the obsessive preoccupation with the eyes of society is no less a distortion of the human condition.
If this tightly drawn version of ``Anna Karenina'' has a major fault, it is that the limitations of time have made it necessary to eliminate too much of society outside of Anna's tight little world. But perhaps that is as much a benefit as it is a liability because it focuses the teleplay on the interplay of human emotions, so overpowering that they mistakenly seem to exist in a political vacuum.
Tolstoy purists will undoubtedly protest that too many liberties have been taken with the novel, that by removing so much of the nitty-gritty side of Russian society, this version has replaced a borsch-and-pumpernickel dinner with a too-refined white-bread-and-caviar tea. PBS partisans may even point out, rightfully so, that the recent BBC miniseries was much more evocative of the whole panorama of Russian society.
Well, perhaps all that is true, and it is probable that this ``Anna Karenina'' may not be considered the quintessential production. There may very well be still more ``Anna'' versions to come. Certainly Jacqueline Bisset's Anna avoids the pitfall of becoming an intellectualized study of women in society . . . although the political environment of the period is hardly overlooked in the Goldman adaptation. It is just that emphasis is on the touching tale of a woman caught in the web of her own emotional environment.
``Anna Karenina'' is a production of an American company, Rastar Productions, although there was a lot of British involvement. However, its appearance on CBS is proof that American network television, if it decides not to compromise dramatic principle for mass audience appeal, can bring us the kind of fine, literate drama we have come to believe is the exclusive province of British television.