The film is the only international version filmed entirely in Russia, at locations in Saint Petersburg and Moscow.
Anna Karenina is a young and elegant wife of Alexei Karenin, a wealthy nobleman twenty years her senior. She is unhappy and lives only for their son, Seriozha. During a ball in Moscow, she encounters the handsome Count Alexei Vronsky. Vronsky is instantly smitten and follows her to St. Petersburg, pursuing her shamelessly. Eventually, Anna surrenders to her feelings for him and becomes his mistress. Though they are happy together, their relationship soon crumbles after she miscarries his child. Karenin is deeply touched by her pain and agrees to forgive her. However, Anna remains unhappy and, to the scandal of respectable society, she openly leaves her husband for Vronsky.
Using her brother as an intermediary, Anna hopelessly begs her husband for a divorce. Karenin, under the poisonous influence of her friend the Countess Lydia Ivanovna, indignantly refuses to divorce and denies Anna any access to Seriozha. Distraught by the loss of her son, Anna grows severely depressed and self-medicates with laudanum. Before long, she is hopelessly addicted. With Vronsky she has another child, but he is also torn between his love to Anna and the temptation of a respectable marriage in the eyes of society. Anna becomes certain that Vronsky is about to leave her and marry a younger woman. She travels to the railway station and commits suicide by jumping in front of a train.
Vronsky is emotionally devastated by her death and volunteers for a 'suicide mission' in the Balkan war. While travelling to join his regiment, he encounters Konstantin Levin at the train station. Levin has married Vronsky's former (and unrequited) sweetheart, Princess "Kitty" Shcherbatsky. Levin attempts to persuade Vronsky of the value of life. Vronsky, however, is now despondent, and can only speak of how Anna's body looked at the railway station when he arrived to see her. They separate, and Levin is left sure that he will never see again Vronsky, while the train departs.
Levin returns to his family. At home, he writes the events of everything that happened, and signs his manuscript: "Leo Tolstoy".Sophie Marceau as Anna Arkadyevna Karenina
Sean Bean as Count Alexei Kirillovitch Vronsky
Alfred Molina as Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin
Mia Kirshner as Princess Yekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatsky, "Kitty"
James Fox as Alexei Alexandrovitch Karenin
Fiona Shaw as Countess Lydia Ivanovna
Danny Huston as Prince Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky, "Stiva"
Saskia Wickham as Princess Darya Alexandrovna Oblonskaya, "Dolly"
Phyllida Law as Countess Vronskaya
David Schofield as Nikolai Dmitrievitch Levin
Jennifer Caron Hall as Princess Elizaveta, "Betsy"
Anna Calder-Marshall as Princess Schcherbatksy
Petr Shelokhonov as Kapitonich, Karenin's butler
Vernon Dobcheff as Pestov
Larisa Kuznetsova as Agatha
Jeremy Sheffield as Boris
Justine Waddell as Countess Nordston
The project was started with help from Mel Gibson, who was approached by Sophie Marceau, and initiated the main budget of about $20 million coming from his company Icon Productions. Casting was made by Marion Dougherty, casting director of Warner Bros. Studios. Screenplay was written by British writer/director Bernard Rose. The film was a joint production by Icon Productions and Warner Bros..
The film has an international cast with the participation of Russian cast and additional crew from Trite Studio and the Lenfilm Studios in St. Petersburg, Russia. Filming was done entirely in Russia between February and August 1996. Main filming locations were in St. Petersburg; at several of the palaces of Russian Tsars as well as historic mansions of Russian Nobility, such as The Winter Palace, Peterhof, Menshikov Palace, Yusupov Palace and other locations. Several minor scenes were filmed in Moscow, Russia.
Post-production was made partially in Europe and the studio version editing was completed in the USA. The original director's cut was not released to the public; it was reduced from 140 minutes to 108 min and distributed internationally by Warner Bros. The US theatrical premiere was in April 1997, followed by the European premiere in May 1997. Several DVD editions in Europe are variants of this title: "Tolstoi's Anna Karenina" and "Leo Tolstoi's Anna Karenina" and may vary in film running time from 104 to 108 minutes.
Music by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, and Prokofiev was recorded in performance by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Sir Georg Solti. The score was recorded in The St Petersburg Philharmonic Hall, where Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, "Pathetique" first premiered. Incidentally, this symphony is played most prominently in key scenes from the film. Director Bernard Rose and Sir Georg Solti both agreed that the Symphony bore parallels with Anna Karenina's story, mainly for the music's excessively tragic tones and Anna's melancholy.
Review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 26% based on reviews from 19 critics, with an average rating of 4.7/10. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 1 and a half stars, saying ' There is much more to Tolstoy's story--but not in this bloodless and shallow adaptation. Bernard Rose is a director of talent (his "Paperhouse" was a visionary film, and his "Immortal Beloved" was a biopic that brought great passion to the story of Beethoven). Here, shooting on fabulous locations, he seems to have lost track of his characters. The movie is like a storyboard for "Anna Karenina with the life and subtlety still to be added.'