As a writer, I enjoy discussing all sorts of films beyond those of the animated variety, and whilst this blog will remain primarily about the drawn, the digitised and the dolls, each month I’ll write up my thoughts on my favourite live action film of the month. Well, that was the plan until September turned out to be an absolutely stellar month. Even some of the weaker entries such as Now Is Good packed a powerful, if clichéd punch. As it is, it came down to three choices to write about, all bona fide five star films that deserve lots of attention. The first was Berberian Sound Studio by Peter Strickland, a mind bending psycho-thriller that uses sound editing to incredible effect. However, I’ve already written a review of that elsewhere online, narrowing it down to two more choices. Rian Johnson’s Looper may well turn out to be an enduring sci-fi masterpiece, and really, I could have written pages and pages about it. Yet the clincher was that I happen to have seen Anna Karenina twice, so it wins out for proving that it stands up to repeat viewing. I’m sure Looper does, too, and I can’t wait to find out.
Joe Wright’s unexpectedly great action film/fairytale Hanna was an absolute belter, utilising snappy camerawork and a killer soundtrack by The Chemical Brothers to create one of the most interesting hitman films of the last few years. Wright seemed to just get the language of the action thriller, and his famed long shots found a home in a fight scene with Eric Bana and a bunch of goons getting beaten to a pulp. So when it was announced that he was going back to Keira Knightley starring period dramas, there was some understandable trepidation. Sure, the pairing could produce handsomely shot and designed films, and Knightley’s growth as an actress seems to be down to her work with this director, but it seemed as though Wright was going back to safe territory; in Hanna he has proved that he could make something fresh and exciting, this choice just seemed to be a case of same old, same old.
What a wonderful surprise, then, that Anna Karenina turned out to be the most interesting and beautiful cinematic period drama of the last decade. It’s more Alexandr Sokurov than Merchant Ivory, a bold, constantly inventive version of the classic novel that hardly anyone has read (I certainly haven’t). It’s perhaps too soon to say that he’s revitalised the period drama, and maybe it will prove to be a singular, unique blip in the long run for the genre, but what can be said is that Joe Wright has produced something completely refreshing and new, that hits all the beats of a standard historical drama but does them with such verve and intelligence it feels like watching something wholly different. And it all revolves around an idea that started with the age old conundrum of film makers of not having enough money.
The director-actor combo, who had wowed many critics (although not this one) with Atonement and Pride and Prejudice looked to see which literary heroine they could tackle next, and Tolstoy’s doomed unfaithful heroine was the one that stuck out to them. This in itself is a bold choice, as Anna is immensely frustrating and irritating as a protagonist towards the end of her story. Yet a larger issue remained: recreating aristocratic Russia (an opulent, ostentatious society) and to take in the several locations and sets required, would be far too expensive for any studio to bankroll. So driven by budgeting issues, Wright devised the concept of setting all the city-based scenes within a theatre. So all the garish ballrooms, snow bound train stations and poverty-ridden back streets become confined within one theatre, whether it is the main auditorium or the backstage areas.
It’s a genius conceit, and elevates a rather simple tale to something far more dramatic and intense, giving us a much more layered look at society and the psychology of Anna herself. The two cities here – Moscow and St. Petersburg – are, through the theatre, presented as artificial and shallow, where everyone in it is subject to being watched, all the time, by everyone. The clean, Days of Heaven like visuals of Levin’s countryside retreat reinforce what could be considered quite an obvious look at the urban/rural dichotomy. But the city-as-a-theatre approach does far more than this: it gives us a glimpse into the mind of Anna and the way she feels the whole world is watching her. As such, in certain moments, it seems as though everything stops for her, revealing her self centredness, yet also highlighting crucial, game changing moments in the story. It gives each of these moments a sense of heightened reality, where every breath, every look and every smile carries deep significance.
It creates a world where everything is stylised, each person feels like they are performing a part they were born into where the audience is the people that make up their society. By drawing attention to the artifice of the world he has created, Wright risks alienating some of the audience, and indeed many may find the approach off putting, as if they can never be fully involved in a story that seems, so often, to be fake. Yet cinema is, in essence, a web of elaborate, beautiful lies hiding nuggets of truth that resonate with us regardless of their genre or medium. We love to be deceived by the silver screen, to escape for a time, so long as something in the story being told rings true outside of the 120 minutes we watch. This film’s bold move of pointing this out, however, means that whilst it is clearly a work of art and fiction, the messages and truths that these stories conceal are all the more potent for it.
So when Levin (Domnhall Gleeson) watches his newly wed wife tend to his dying brother, the look in his eyes as he sees the display of compassion he had not thought previously possible is full of humility and joy, and it seems so true and real. Similarly, as Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) declares his forgiveness for Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the man who ruined his marriage, the grace on display is truly powerful. It’s notes such as these that add up to form the song of the film; one that resonates with themes of love, loyalty and kindness. It’s proof that the film rises far above it’s theatre gimmick to create something that is unforgettable, moving and somehow relevant to our 21st Century British lives (or, indeed, anyone reading this from outside the UK). The most artificial film of the year may yet prove to be the most real, as well.
The best ensemble cast of the year lends weight and credibility to the film, and the themes that run through it. Knightley continues to mature as an actress, and after the promise of Never Let Me Go she emerges fully here from the petulant pouter role that many associate with her. The major criticism that could be levelled at the film – and the problem here is with Tolstoy, not any actor or director involved – is that Anna is a cold, frustrating presence, consistently making stupid decisions and being so self centred that it is difficult to care about her fate. Yet Knightley makes her feel a little more human, and her decisions don’t seem that far fetched or unbelievable. Anna is a difficult character to play, and many a weaker actress would have failed where Knightley excels.
Surrounding her are a clutch of supremely talented performers, many of them giving career best performances. Matthew Macfadyen adds a much needed lightness to proceedings, yet his final look in the film betrays his regrets and sorrow at the choices he has made, whilst his long suffering wife is brought to life by the luminous Kelly Macdonald. There are, however, two performances that deserve particular mention. Domnhall Gleeson, an actor who continues to grow in stature, and who consistently chooses good roles (most famous as Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter films, but also has memorable parts in Shadow Dancer, True Grit and Never Let Me Go), is absolutely superb as Levin, the devoted, loyal opposite to Anna. Hidden beneath a truly impressive ginger beard, he gives the film its heart, and does so with a warmth and tenderness that should earn him awards and much, much bigger roles. Jude Law, meanwhile, is nearly unrecognisable as Anna’s husband Karenin, with thinning hair and softly spoken commitment to the country. He appears, at first, to be stuffy and a harsh disciplinarian, but as Anna continues to betray his trust he reveals a side of the character that is heartbreakingly dedicated. As he sits on a chair, the lights dimming on his figure, and he asks ‘what have I done to deserve this?’, Law delivers one of the biggest, most upsetting emotional gut punches of the year.
One of the most famous Shakespeare quotes seems to apply to Joe Wright’s epic, beautiful take on Anna Karenina: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players…” (As You Like It). By taking this in a quite literal sense, Wright has shown that whilst this may yet be true, there are still, within this great play of life, opportunities for compassion, forgiveness and true, loyal love that should not be ignored. Wright took a heavy, serious book and, with the help of a stellar cast giving it their all, created a unique and brave work of art that is one of the most moving, visually spectacular films of the year. Whatever he does next, we should start getting excited already.