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Film Review: Anna Karenina

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Alienation Effect

Poor old Joe Wright, he got bored of cinema; bored of its infinitely malleable space and myriad of possibilities. The top of his head yawned back, like a convertible’s soft top retracted, as he contemplated tiresome conjuring tricks like the cut – such a crude elliptical instrument, or the set, a trite simulacrum of reality, so petit bourgeois. Yes, Joe Wright leafed through Tolstoy’s tome, impressed by its dynamic and inventive unlocking of consciousness and the vivid construction of time and place, and reasoned that such a canvas, so beautiful, so rich, may be the apotheosis of the novel form, but to use the cinematic apparatus in a bid to achieve the same ends would be a vulgar slight against Leo; a stain on his manuscript.

So Joe Wright, face palsied with hate as he thought of the illiterate proles, with their gross expectation of cinematic realism, the transmission of tone from the page to the screen for the benefit of those that had not, would not, pick up this novel and scan it with their doe eyes, vowed to frustrate any attempt at democratising this wedge of high culture.

Thus Joe, a filmmaker by trade, sought to preserve the novel’s mystique and cultural exclusivity by aping an altogether less inclusive medium; one that remains inaccessible to the hordes, and which, like Tolstoy’s oeuvre, is considered to be a retreat, a sanctuary if you will, for the intelligentsia, who must endure the witless prattling and half-bakery of the mass at all other times.

Joe chose to take the filmmakers’ tools and make theatre.

Regressive vandalism, yes; inverse snobbery, sure, but my word what glorious two dimensional sets, what artifice, and the real time scene changes – what a novelty for the multiplex morlocks! Sure, not a moment of it feels real, and the mannered performances, stage turns, are a world away from the novel’s nuanced construction of subjectivity, a technique that threw up real-to-touch human beings for our delectation and judgement, but wow.

Still, JW, unable to break the celluloid shackle entirely, though it be just a strip of film, occasionally employs those crude instruments, perfected over the last century, to augment his night at the playhouse. Perverse it may be, but there’s pleasure to be had in listening to the rhythm of Anna’s fan segue into the pounding of hooves from Vronsky’s horse: it’s as though we can hear her heart beat faster, share her anticipation, partake in the concern for her lover – it’s a moment of, and the bile mixes as a I type the words, cinema, ruined only by the steed tumbling off a wooden stage.

And we daren’t forget the moment that Karenin, loathing his adulterous feminoid, tears up the request to be by her bedside, the tossed pieces transformed from confetti to snow. What a wonderful moment. Imagine how it might have played against a panorama rather than diorama. Actually try not to think about that, this isn’t for you.

“She broke the rules” says dour faced socialite Mme Kartasov, eyeing the ostracised Anna like a dead bird in a cat’s mouth. Well so did our Joe, and whereas rules are of course made to be broken, so said a man who didn’t grasp their basic function, his substitution of a different set, a limiting set, puts constraints on this adaptation that strangles it at birth. High time this play closed.

Directed by: Joe Wright

Country: UK/France

Year: 2012

Running Time: 130 mins

Certificate: 12A for the egregious waste of the medium's potential.

5 Responses

  1. Max says:

    Your review drips with sarcasm. It’s as if you almost hate Wright. Try to be more objective and less sarcastic. It’s always a shame for critics to write like this.

    Don’t want to tell you “high time this site closed”.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      Thanks for the tip, Max. Where would I be without you, eh? If sarcasm is warranted, then sarcasm it shall be. I don’t believe in objectivity for its own sake; a review is a subjective form. If you want objectivity you should read a synopsis. The ubiquity of what you call sarcasm in this review is proportionate to the level of disdain I felt at the decisions taken. It is fair? Well, only Wright knows why he took those decisions, I can but speculate, in fact I did, but it was a failed experiment for me and waste of cinematic potential and that, I felt very strongly, was crucial. You may disagree but there’s nothing to stop you writing your own review. Try being a little more tolerant of other points of view, rather than suggesting that if the debate isn’t heading in the direction you’d like, it should be closed down.

      Thanks for reading.

      • Max says:

        You’re welcome. :)

      • BRoy says:

        This is a really well-written review, Ed, but I do have one question: do you not think Wright’s ambitions on this project are at least admirable? I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The film is flawed, of course, but does boldness and courage as a filmmaker to do something different not deserve some respect, if not your endorsement? If I was given the choice of another same-old Hollywood comedy (for example) and a period drama that plays around with space and time, I’d pick the latter every time. Ambitious failures just often seem more interesting to me than pictures that play it safe, I was curious to see what you thought.

        • Ed Whitfield says:

          I don’t know that they were admirable, no. Phillip French’s piece in The Guardian touched on the precedents for this sort of literary reinvention http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2012/sep/09/anna-karenina-review-philip-french but I found it to be hugely reductive. You’re right that in the abstract at least, experimentation is to be encouraged – there’s no reason why every literary adaptation should aim for realism, but respecting the choices made is bound up with a judgement as to whether that treatment liberates the material, opening it up for an audience, improves it in some way, or rips the heart of it, and in this case I felt Wright had done the latter. You call it courageous – well, maybe it was, given the novel’s reputation and what Wright imagined to be the audience’s expectations, but there’s the rub: naturally he thought about the audience in some depth and I believe it’s there, in a bid to retain the novel’s cultural mystique if you like, that he made the flawed decision to reformulate the thing as theatre. To my mind that’s patronising a mass audience, so perhaps it’s not as far removed from those Hollywood comedies as you’d like.