The ABC’s The Beautiful Lie has now completed its season to almost universal claim from the professional critics.
Is the new ABC miniseries The Beautiful Lie, the latest screen adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877), as good as the book?
In short, the answer is yes.
High praise indeed.
Here is what others think of Anna Karenina.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky declared it “flawless as a work of art.” His opinion was shared by Vladimir Nabokov, who especially admired “the flawless magic of Tolstoy’s style,” and by William Faulkner, who described the novel as “the best ever written.” The novel remains popular, as demonstrated by a 2007 poll of 125 contemporary authors in Time, which declared that Anna Karenina is the “greatest novel ever written.” (Wiki)
Is The Beautiful Lie really that good? Probably not.
Any recreation of a work in a different medium needs to be able to stand on its own merits. Inevitably, there will be changes from the original, particularly when you endeavour to reduce an 800 page novel to a six-hour television series.
But while cinematic adaptations must stand on their own merits, viewers who have read the original will inevitably make comparisons.
In my case, I have not read Anna Karenina, so I come to The Beautiful Lie with nothing but a general knowledge of the story. Unfortunately, this means knowing the ending, so all the shots of Anna standing thoughtfully beside train lines tended to be a bit heavy-handed.
There were a number of elements of the series that were implausible and ultimately they make The Beautiful Lie less than successful.
Why were Xander and Anna cast as tennis players? One explanation is that they are the Australian equivalent of Russian nobility. Not really, the position that international tennis stars occupy In Australian society and the standards by which they are judged are far different from those of the upper reaches of the landed nobility in 19c Russia.
But there is nothing about their status as tennis players that adds to the plot or to their characters. Their tennis playing ability seemed to be completely irrelevant to the rest of their lives.
They could just as easily have been diplomats, politicians or better still members of the upper-middle-class super-rich, think the Murdochs, the Packers and Australia’s own answer to Dallas, the Rinehart family.
Bianca Rinehart as a role model for Anna?
Roger Corser’s Xander doesn’t look like a tennis player (think Federer, Nadal, Djokovic.) Corser is more your rugby league type.
And Sarah Snook as Anna Ivin looks nothing like a tennis player. She has nothing of the hard, lean look of Navratilova, Graf or Margaret Court. She certainly has none of the inner strength that makes a tennis champion.
That’s not a tennis player, this is a tennis player
In the fallout from her breakup with Xander, Anna is denied access to the family home, the family money and her child. This might have happened in 19th century Russia, but it doesn’t happen in 21st-century Australia. As a general rule, the mother is given custody. So why did she simply accept the Kasper would be living with this father and she would be denied access?
It’s a detail. But given that a significant part of Anna’s deterioration is caused by her separation from, and rejection by, her son, it’s a detail that should have been dealt with in a more convincing and realistic way.
And then she winds up pregnant. There is nothing in the script to indicate that she and Skeet wish to start a family and, given Kasper’s age, she’s clearly been able to avoid becoming pregnant for at least six or seven years. So why now?
Once the baby has arrived, it has no dramatic impact whatsoever, apart from being carted about in a carry-cot.
And herein lies the problem. Anna’s pregnancy is in the original. But social conditions and mores have changed in the last 200 years and this is Australia, not Russia so the response of Anna’s social class to her infidelity will be markedly different in these two different societies. This makes it very difficult to translate a story across 200 years when social and cultural standards have changed so much.
But, depending on your point of view, the greatest plausibility is a relationship between Anna and Skeet.
One view is that the attraction they both feel for each other, triggered by a chance meeting in the airport and intensified at Kitty’s engagement party, sets in motion a grand passion with catastrophic and tragic consequences.
The other view is that the attraction between Anna and Skeet and their later relationship stretches the credulity of the viewer. To begin with, they are so different and appeared to have nothing much in common, apart from a physical attraction to each other. But even that appears to be somewhat one-sided.
Anna and Skeet at Kitty’s engagement party
In the novel, Anna and Vronski belong to the same social class, they are both aristocrats and bound by the moral and social standards of that class. There is none of this dynamic in the relation between Anna and Skeet. There is some family tension surfaces when Anna gatecrashes Dolly and Nick’s wedding. But beyond this, this important element of the growing distance between Anna and Vronski is missing from The Beautiful Lie.
In fact, throughout the relationship, Skeet appears strangely distant from Anna.
The scene where Anna and Kasper are together while Skeet is trying to record some music and the scene in the kitchen when Anna finds the musicians having breakfast must surely have made her think that she and Skeet were so dissimilar that the relationship could not possibly survive.
Because of this imbalance in the nature of the relationship, we never get the impression that this is a grand passion against all the odds but rather that it was simply not a very good idea.
At the core of The Beautiful Lie are the two relationships that Anna has with two men in life, Skeet and Xander. Her relationship with Skeet is flawed by inconsistencies and implausibilities that ultimately make The Beautiful Lie a good, but not great Australian production.