While the brilliance of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina may be muddied in this TV adaptation, The Beautiful Lie remains a pleasure. By Helen Razer.

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina adapted for ‘The Beautiful Lie’

Ali Barter (left) and Sarah Snook in 'The Beautiful Lie'.
Ali Barter (left) and Sarah Snook in 'The Beautiful Lie'.
Credit: BEN KING

In this story

Happy readers are all alike, but every unhappy reader is unhappy in their own way. In reading the great novel Anna Karenina, of which ABC1’s drama The Beautiful Lie is a present-day version, unhappiness may be all but assured. But, the form this unhappiness takes can vary quite a bit.

Leo Tolstoy gives us misery as panoramic and various as the Russian countryside to which his fictional families so often flee in the hope of leaving their unhappiness behind. Spoiler: they never outrun their misery, and we readers have little hope of it either. This book, which famously begins with an unhappy family and famously concludes with an unhappy death, goads reader unhappiness in dozens of ways.

Anna Karenina has the power to make us unhappy about the nature of gender, of progress or of being itself. It can certainly make us unhappy about capitalism, and this response was provoked in thousands of Russian students who rallied at the death of Tolstoy and for the birth of a revolution that would see an end to the mass unhappiness the author so unhappily described. In a 1910 obituary, Leon Trotsky wrote, “Tolstoy did not know or show the way out of the hell of bourgeois culture.” But he depicted it with “irresistible force”. Anna Karenina posed great questions about the origins of unhappiness and Trotsky lost no time in answering these with “socialism”.

But Trotsky and his socialism were brutally extinguished by Bolshevism, and so was this once common reading of Tolstoy. There were far more serious casualties of the Soviet experiment than a complex reading of Anna Karenina, of course. Still, it’s a small calamity that this big book is now widely understood to depict a very narrow range of unhappiness.

On screen and, therefore, in our shared memory, this work, firmly rooted in a very particular history, has become a “timeless” book about the pain of love and loss. This is the unhappy reading of more recent film versions and of The Beautiful Lie.

To call the unhappiness explored in The Beautiful Lie narrow could seem pretty pigheaded on at least three counts. First: love, redemption, infidelity and jealousy aren’t exactly trifling things. Second: any negative appraisal of our best local television drama since The Slap is bloody unAustralian – it’s akin to grumbling about the quality of a storm after a four-year drought. And third: we can never see vision as complex as Tolstoy’s on any flat screen, so any claim that “it’s not as good as the book” is hardly worth making. There’s not much that is as good as this book, which Hemingway, Chekhov, Faulkner and Nabokov all declared the greatest ever written.

To be clear, The Beautiful Lie is a beautiful pleasure of which you must partake. It is shot with extraordinary craft. Its Melbourne-through-a-retro-filter is very pretty. The agreeable dialogue rhythms established in Offspring, on which several of the show’s creators have worked, are polished by writing and, particularly, acting of depth. Sarah Snook, who gives us Anna, is a true star and it would be foolish not to watch this export-in-waiting grow. Dolly, Anna’s salty sister-in-law, is played with remarkable insight by Celia Pacquola. Pacquola, best known for her straight-man comic turn in Utopia, brings life to a role that, I surmise, was derived from her close reading of Tolstoy and his better critics.

Honestly, Pacquola gives this production its most legitimately Tolstoyish moments. Her Dolly is the Dolly of the great novel. And this is due less to the actual timelessness of Dolly’s story – she is wronged by her husband, Anna’s brother, whom she loves – but the way in which Pacquola fully situates her character in the present.

Not to extend the “it’s not as good as the book” twaddle criticism to the rest of the production, but Pacquola’s performance is sufficiently great to give us not just a hint of Tolstoy, but a look at the opportunities The Beautiful Lie has missed.

Again, the show is very good. Watch it. Watch it and forget that it has anything to do with Tolstoy and what you will then enjoy is a top-drawer soap. And, it is a soap, save for the satisfying and convincing grime provided by Pacquola and Alexander England’s Levin. This is otherwise an impossible story about people who don’t live in the social or the present but have the dimensions of a much-hearted Instagram post.

Updating a literary classic is very difficult work, of course. But it’s not actually compulsory work and when writers largely succumb, as they have here, to the dreadful temptation of universalism, one wonders why they bother updating at all. It’s a belief and not a fact that there are eternal stories that transcend material and time and in stripping a work of its costume, you don’t necessarily get the naked truth.

Actually, there’s a new set of clothes on this old story and they obfuscate not only the original text but any hope we might have of watching a legitimately Australian story. It’s not easy maintaining this legitimacy, but it has been done, and by several of this show’s creators, in The Slap. The Slap was a drama made powerful by its devotion to the time and place in which it was written. If there is anything that is universal about The Slap, it’s its engagement with the difficult presence of social codes.

If there is a story “as old as time”, it’s the one that describes the facts of the individual’s battle with the world. Each one of us is always at war with civilisation and to be human is to be torn between one’s drives and one’s responsibilities.

This is, as Trotsky knew, what largely fuelled the genius of Anna Karenina. We might feel that the story of these unhappy families is so powerful it can be easily transposed by contemporary language. But it can’t.

There are several moments of modern renovation that not only dishonour the original structure of the novel, but look quite ridiculous in their own right. For example, Kitty, played with often beguiling neurosis by Sophie Lowe, takes her time choosing the right man. In the Tolstoy text, Kitty is driven to indecision by the conventions of her day; she wants to make the best marriage. In The Beautiful Lie, she’s a crazy bulimic who just can’t make up her mind. Anna Karenina has a very dismal view of marriage, which, as Tolstoy outright says, is a toxic institution devised for the efficient transfer of land. Property is one of the many things that defiles love in the text. On the screen, though, the thing that defiles love is bad behaviour.

We do have moments with Dolly and Levin, as aforementioned, where we see how the world impacts love. Levin survives the screen reasonably well as Tolstoy’s self-portrait. This is a man who has not just, as Anna and Kitty and many other characters do, “innate” or universal flaws; he has flaws that are manufactured by the social, by land ownership, and by a very contemporary sense of honour.

It’s a medium-sized shame that an actor as promising as Snook plays an Anna detached from her social moorings. There are two key plot points where modernisation fails her very badly. First, a life-changing pregnancy that modern medicine would permit her to terminate proceeds without explanation. Second, the incident that dooms her to the dashing soldier Vronsky, played by Benedict Samuel, who is assigned some awful clothes and the absurd name of “Skeet”, is fatally underdone.

When the beautiful Anna first meets the Count or, in this case, a scruffy music guy who looks like the star of the next Trivago ad, they both see a railway worker die. Muffled against the cruel Moscow winter, the worker cannot hear the resumed motion of the train that has carried Anna to her fate. He is crushed by the literal wheels of an emerging industry and Anna worries that this poor man’s wife and child will have no means of survival, so Vronsky slings the wife 200 roubles. They are both aware of their responsibility. Anna remarks that this death is an evil omen and, certainly, it presages the terms of her own death – this isn’t a spoiler, the TV Anna tells us she’s going to die in the first minute of episode one – and introduces her to the man largely responsible for it.

This crucial moment is over in a jiffy in the show, and it doesn’t return. Writers would have been better to dispose of the death, in this case of a taxi driver, altogether than to burn in “the hell of bourgeois culture” that Tolstoy was very clearly damning. Anna, Vronsky and all the spoiled princes and princesses of Russia knew that their own demise was speeding up with the movement of the train. This was a class aware of its imminent death; workers would not be content much longer to give their bodies to the increasingly dangerous service of the ruling class.

Anna and Skeet, who are rewritten as celebrities, are not driven to each other by the threat of their extinction. They’re just driven to each other by their genitals. It’s easy to understand why a writer would see famous people as the new nobility. It’s not so easy to understand why a writer wouldn’t explore the fact of celebrity’s waning lure. Or, really, any social conditions of the present.

This is not, for a minute, to suggest that Anna Karenina must remain a costume drama. It is quite possible to keep a story located in its time and still fail to engage with that time at all. Baz Luhrmann accessorised his adaptation of The Great Gatsby wonderfully, but he misread the text woefully. What was a savage attack on the excesses of the rich became nearly two-and-a-half hours of wealth worship.

The Beautiful Lie is not so flatly pornographic as that. We don’t envy Anna’s well-funded life of privilege, but nor do we see how it influences her or how the threat of its absence might charge her libido and compel her to leave her little boy. In their attempts to universalise, the show’s creators have emptied this story of motivation. We do not see how the individual is always at war with the society she inhabits. Instead, we are led to believe that all unhappy families are alike.


1 . Arts Diary

THEATRE The Popular Mechanicals

Space Theatre, Adelaide, until November 28

DANCE Xavier Le Roy

Carriageworks, Sydney, until November 22

VISUAL ART Aleks Danko: My fellow Aus-tra-aliens

Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, Melbourne, until February 21

SPOKEN WORD The 16th Inaugural Chaser Lecture

Sydney Town Hall, November 9

CINEMA The Palestinian Film Festival

Palace Norton Street, Leichhardt, Sydney, November 19-22

Kino Cinemas, Melbourne, November 20-22

Palace Electric, Canberra, November 27-29

Cinema Paradiso, Perth, December 4-6

Last chance

VISUAL ART Nitet Yapeneyepuk, Gather Together

Melbourne Museum, until November 8

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 7, 2015 as "Cutting classes".

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Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.

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