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Deep in the Heart of Russia

To capture 'Anna Karenina's' spirit, filmmakers are braving St. Petersburg life.

June 16, 1996|Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams is The Times' Moscow bureau chief

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Jim Lemley sweeps aside the curtains in his trailer on the Palace Embankment location of "Anna Karenina" and settles back with a cup of coffee to drink in the view.

"This is one of the best parts. I could sit here all day and stare out at the Peter and Paul Fortress," the production manager says midway through the film's shooting in this Imperial Russian capital.

But his reverie is often interrupted--by the constant chirping of his cell phone, the routine squawking of his two-way radio, the regular intrusions of crew members with updates on the fate of set preparations and stray equipment and the persistent knocks on the door by artists, extras and vendors.

This time it's a delivery man with bottled water that someone has ordered--and he's not leaving until he is paid the 1.6 million rubles ($325) he has coming.

"In principle, I want bottled water. But why do I have to handle this myself?" Lemley asks with exasperation as he casts about on the bustling, cluttered embankment for someone who has enough cash to pay the bill. "I understand that people here have always been cheated and that's why no one believes you. But it's one of the frustrations in working here."

Those frustrations are legendary and little changed from the Soviet era, from the capricious customs authorities at every airport and border crossing to the daily guessing game of what will be impossible tomorrow that appears to be no problem today.

But the incremental madness of making a movie in today's Russia is outweighed by the inspiring accomplishment of finally doing the job right, insist those making the West's fifth attempt to capture Leo Tolstoy's epic novel on film.

This "Anna Karenina," by actor-director Mel Gibson's Icon Productions, is the West's first film to be shot entirely on location in Russia, and when it is distributed by Warner Bros. around Christmas, it will also be the first quintessentially Russian story to be told from the environment of its creator.

The 1965 epic film of Boris Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago" had to be shot in Finland and Spain because of the adversarial relations between the Soviet Union and the West at that time. The four earlier U.S. film versions of "Anna Karenina" were also made in ersatz settings.

Fresh from the Academy Award-winning production of "Braveheart" in the Scottish countryside, producer Bruce Davey has rented the 18th century salons neighboring St. Petersburg's Winter Palace as settings for the film, directed by Bernard Rose and starring French actress Sophie Marceau in the title role.

This version aims to capture the genuine backdrop of the novel, from the opulent Catherine's Palace in rural Tsarskoye Selo to the bleak country railway station where Anna jumps to her death before an oncoming freight train to escape the desperation of her deteriorating affair with Count Vronsky.

"Artistically, you cannot find this look anywhere else in the world. No place else looks like Imperial Russia," Lemley says of the main motivation for shooting the whole film on location.

Through a collaborative arrangement with Russian filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov, who won an Academy Award for best foreign language film in 1994 for "Burnt by the Sun," Icon has hired about two-thirds of its 160-odd crew for "Anna Karenina" from the Lenfilm Studios here.

But the once-powerful Lenfilm is suffering the same post-Communist fate of all cultural institutions--withered funding and an exodus of top artists--which has compelled the producers to bring in foreign talent for most of the key jobs.

Italian designer and two-time Oscar nominee Maurizio Millenotti has created the costumes, and the music of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff was conducted by the famed Hungarian-born Sir Georg Solti.

With the production's French electrical teams, Czech equipment drivers, Australian production staff, Russian stagehands and mostly British cast, the background noise on the set wavers between trendy cosmopolitanism and the Tower of Babel.

Such a merging of cultures was an element of Tolstoy's story as well: Much of the Imperial architecture of St. Petersburg originated with Italian designers, the lingua franca of the pre-revolutionary aristocracy was French, and the novel's ending was played against the backdrop of war in the Balkans, to which the distraught Vronsky flees after Anna's suicide.

Tolstoy's classic story of passion and tragedy has proved irresistible to filmmakers. Two earlier versions, one silent and one talking, starred Greta Garbo in the title role, Vivien Leigh played the doomed lover in a 1950s version, and a 1970s production cast Jacqueline Bisset as Anna.

Aside from the on-location claim of the latest version, the Icon producers hail their elevation of the parallel love story of Levin and Kitty, which has been given short shrift in the other cinematic tellings.

Unlike the earlier versions, where the credits rolled after the death of Anna and the departure of Vronsky, the final scene this time will portray the rural and reflective figure of Levin, who is Tolstoy's alter ego, returning to a home full of love and hope.

"We're not trying to make it any less of a tragedy. We're attempting to be more complete and more true to the novel," says Davey, who is shuttling between here and Los Angeles for the movie. It is scheduled to wrap up filming July 3.

"At the beginning of the story, it's Anna who has everything and Levin who is despondent, but by the end their fortunes have reversed," Lemley says. "This is the first time, cinematically, that both stories have been dealt with."

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