Friday, 11 January 2013

Let’s Face the Music and Dance; or Into you like a Train

Anna Karenina: directed by Joe Wright; written by Tom Stoppard

How to consider Anna Karenina?

Ignoring the usual problems you run into trying to write any article on a film, adaptations of celebrated literary works become particularly challenging. In the case of Anna Karenina, a behemoth novel in both size and stature – that I have the utmost respect for but find impenetrable in parts and difficult to love – approaching the film through the lens of the text it’s inspired by seems problematic, at best. True, approaching any adaptation through the lens of the work it’s based on would be problematic but Joe Wright’s feverish Anna Karenina becomes more so because even as the frame of the film is still Tolstoy’s the production unfolding seems to be wholly Wright’s…and Stoppard. The key thing to remember in writing on adaptations, then, is the key thing to remember in making them. The very case of adapting a previously work makes the new creation an artistic rendition of its own. Servility to the predecessor is puerile, chaste admiration is dull and Stoppard and Wright realise that. Like Anna, their creation is nothing if not audacious.

“…I’d rather end up wishing I hadn’t than end up wishing I had— wouldn’t you?”

Anna is making her way to her brother’s home to help with them with a familial issue (he has been indescrete with a lover, leaving his pregnant wife distraught) and she meets the Countess Vronsky on the train who utters the words above regarding some scandal she was involved in. And, in many ways, the Countess’ words are a fine indicator of the sort of film this turns out to be. It’s perhaps thorny to say that an adaptation of the most acclaimed 19th century novels is a risky endeavour. But, in turning Tolstoy’s acclaimed 800 page novel into a 120 minute film Wright, and scriptwriter Stoppard, are valiantly committed to doing more than doing less. And, in the story of a young Socialite’s adulterous romance with an engaging soldier excess is, surely, a necessity. As the screen becomes caught in a deluge of tittering fans, grandiose walls and billowing gowns impugning Wright of losing the story’s thrust in his technicalities seems an obvious disclaimer but within frames overflowing with “muchness” the deftness of Wright’s work here is in the details inherent amidst the swell of the film’s production design. Take, for example, about five minutes into the film the camera slyly zeroes in a toy train of Anna’s son Seryozha. The toy train becomes a real train Anna travels on and we know how important trains are to this story. Wright’s suggestion is obvious and key to understand his take on the story – something is imminently momentous as trains for this tale are imbued with characteristics that make them realistic playthings for the young. It’s a tact that works two-fold; it lends an irreverence to the entire scenario – which is an important part of Wright’s way of contrasting the inherent melodrama. More effective and insidious, though, is the way that the model casts a shadow over the knowledge we have of the importance of trains to the story, as if to say – ultimately, we are all fragile things making our way across a preordained train track….

...which, of course, brings us to the much discussed stage conceit of Wright’s creation. The technique might seem Brechtian at first glance. In fact, the opening of a particularly droll Stiva and a blubbery Dolly seems like something out of Chekhov at his most Absurd (before Absurdist drama was the thing) but mounting the characters on a stage is not an attempt to distance the audience from the emotion at hand. With no actual mansions to trudge through the walls are destroyed and the film depends on the urgency of the actors (and the urgency of its music). A key example and one of my favourite cuts: nervous Levin sits for dinner with Stiva in a restaurant and he hears the charming voice of Kitty calling his name he looks up and she’s there and in an actual second we move from the restaurant to the Shcherbatskys’s house. Aesthetically, we know what we’re watching is not real but emotionally the performers must convince us otherwise. And, they do. When the camera observes Karenin on the stage edge as he murmurs, “What did I do to deserve this?” and the lamplights go out it’s not an exercise in style but a rumination on emotion. Has Keira been as womanly devastating? Has McFayden been as charming? When has Johnson been as dashing?


Anna and Vronsky’s love emanates a wave of discomfort not because it’s not working but because the film seems to be deconstructing the romance to a level where we’re forced to live in the cracks. On playing Anna, Keira Knightley said that she didn’t always like her but she always loved her – a paradox in semantic form, but a clear statement in reality and one I understand regarding the film. There are moments when the feverishness seems tied to issues of the mind – is Anna only imagining the crowd watching her and Vronsky? What to make of the final scene with Johnson and Knightley? The lack of closure frustrates. The insistence on remaining unromantic within the romance more so – but then I wonder if it’s not more an indication of my inclinations than the film. Like Anna’s it bristles to precipitate a reaction.

It’s possible that I read more than there is into it but so much of Wright’s decisions seem wrought with psychological undertones. Not only does Levin spend most of his time outside of the stage, but his rustic home is especially dour. Wright seems, to me, to be holding up the camera to us. The world of the bourgeoisie might be petty and ostentatious, but it certainly is gorgeous and momentous. There’s a decisive divide between the hurtling forward thrust of the scene on the soundstage against those that are off. The breakneck pace is not just a wily attempt of Stoppard to condense the story as much as he can while still keeping the main parts intact – it, instead, points out the frenetic way that things unfold in this society and then cunningly parallels Anna’s heedless fall into love/lust/doom. So that when the well-acted Levin does seem to come from a place of respectable stoldiness against the fun city, it seems done with purpose. Do I read so much into it because I’m determined to find things to appreciate or are there legitimate secrets to tell within the ruffles of Durran’s immaculate costumes?

There is a scene, early on, in Anna Karenina where something almost innocuous happens and it not only justifies the film on a stage aspect but suggests so many more intricacies. The flamboyant Stiva Oblonsky makes his way from his workplace of drudgery dragging along the more demure Konstantin Levin. In a head spinning display of sumptuousness the camera begins to spin as Stiva’s workplace becomes a lavish restaurant and as the camera makes a 360 degree turn from Levin’s workplace we return to there to see his former subordinates transformed from office-workers to men bidding their wives goodbye to a batch of waiters and as one saunters over to the two men Stiva hardly spares a glance at this office-attendant turned waiter as he snuffs out his cigarette. It’s an incredibly slight moment considering the weighty drama ahead but it’s one in a dozen or score or more that made me restrain a gasp and it completely justifies, for me, one of the stranger things of Wright’s production. The role of the drama within a stage confine is more obvious – the theatricality in inherent in the lives of these Imperial Russion aristrocrats is stark. But, the conscious decision for the camera to espy the non-speaking actors moving the scenery around made me ponder. Thematically, Tolstoy’s novel – what with so many pages to work through – considers so many things and the focus on social inequality is one of those. A cinematic adaptation already has its hands full having to divert between so many other romantic and familial themes, it’s easy for the social aspect to get lost. But with the easy delicacy of having those nameless actors move about literally carrying the bulk of the scenery on their back (notice how Karenin does not even seem to see the man that puts his desk in place in his first scene) but unseen by the multitudes it’s one of my favourite tics of Wright’s intricacies in adapting the novel to the screen. The romantic themes still exist as paramount but with the myriad of things occurring around there are significant things to take not of. In that regard, the lavish sumptuousness of is not an attempt to hide but to complement.

Anna’s famous death is important because even amidst the moral issues which come with suicide her resolution to dance to the death in her own tune is a key portion of what makes her a prototype for braver literary characters of the era. Tolstoy’s inclinations are less certain – amidst his reliance on Levin, a co-lead in the text, and the final words on the page about Anna being criticisms one wonders on the appropriateness of the text’s name. With Wright’s creation, it’s different. Our last scenes, are of course, not with our heroine but even with that ruminative closing shot of Karenin the wave of Anna is in the air. And, like Anna, the film does so on its own terms. I fell for it.



Yojimbo_5 said...

I thought that Wright was distinguishing Levin from the whole "stage-representation" was because when all is said and done, Tolstoy found him admirable and more rooted to the life well led (in contrast to Anna) and lessons well learned. The thing that boggles my mind is that Wright came up with the stage concept mere weeks before filming.

Anonymous said...

I did feel I was watching a Baz Luhrmann film at times but once I got used to the stage/theatre style I enjoyed it.

I've always had mixed views about Knightly but her acting is improving. In fact I thought she was very good in a little known film of hers called Last Night.

MacFadyen was surprisingly good & Alicia Vikander is one to keep an eye on having seen her excellent performance in The Royal Affair.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

yojimbo the rub, though, is that a "well lived" life is not much interesting to espy, though. i've always had issues (minor to major) with the use of levin in the text, and the way tolstoy leaves the memory of anna.

that did boggle my mind, about right, because it seemed really meticulously considered.

anon i'm looking forward to vikander in a royal affair she really is lovely to watch.

Nick Prigge said...

I'd been looking forward to your review of this one. You did not disappoint. Just fantastic in-depth arguments on what Wright is or is attempting to do with his visuals and production design here. I keep getting into arguments over this one and hearing that same old refrain "style over substance" and it's just.not.true.

And you really lay down, I think, some great arguments to counteract it.

Dan O. said...

Definitely a beautiful movie, but there is more style than substance, and that's abundantly clear by the time the middle-act shows up. Still, one hell of a film to just gaze at. Good review Andrew.

Colin Biggs said...

My only qualm with the film is the stage concept itself. By always keeping the audience thinking "this is staged" it removes a degree of power from Keira Knightley.

Lights Camera Reaction said...

Glad you liked it. I'm glad it got some some oscar nominations. It was such a beautiful film to look at.
Nice review :)

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

nick aaaw, thanks. i was terribly nervous about writing on it in some regards, there's so much to consider. obviously, i'm sort of with you on the style vs substance thingie.

dan at least we agree on it being gorgeous to look at.

colin i think kk manage to overcome the element of being removed, though. she gives a very mature, i've loved watching her grow as an actor.

lights camera reaction it is. so many gorgeous films this year, right?