Monday, 17 September 2012

Anna Karenina: A Brechtian Re-telling of the Russian Imaginary

In reviewing the recent Joe Wright directed film Anna Karenina I have to admit to a bias, well not so much a bias as a grand obsession with the Russian Imaginary which for me, chimes with the Deleuzian concept of mirroring, duplication, reversed identification, and projection.

For me, It is not the Putinistic state which cruelly imprisons beautiful dissident punkettes, nor a country of gangster millionaire oligarchs, nor even the country which voted against a formal UN Security Council condemnation of the Bashir al-Assad government for its attack on civilians in the city of Homs in February 2012.

For me, the soul of Russia and the birthplace of my Babcia (grandmother) is located within a mythical vastness of silvery twinkling, clinking, chandeliering, icicling whiteness. A frozen lakeland, sparkling with Imperial diamonds, rustling with lilac taffeta ball gowns. It is bundled up in fur-lined boots and hats, snuggled up in troikas, it crosses itself before enigmatic mysterious icons, is lit by burning candles and resonates with the soulful, lamenting sound of singing church bells. In Spring it moves to the countryside (na wsie), where mushroom and cherry picking begins and is bottled in glass jars which catch the light of the ice-melting sun.  It is here, that we are propaganded with visions of noble peasants, forever bending towards the good earth, scything, ploughing, believing in God, ground down by fate and serfdom waiting, waiting for that moment when the whiteness will be stained with revolutionary red blood letting.

The allure of 19th Century Imperial Russia is that it holds within its diamontine image a tragic end-of-history denouement.

In this moment of economic downturn, in our own western crisis, popular culture is going through a Downtown Abbeysation of nostalgic nodding to a time when the toffs and the plebs knew their places. Where grand country house glittering and linen starching re-plays the Capitalist dream machine.

So how are we to hold this dialectic and approach a contemporary filmic representation of a Tolstoyian classic? The tragic transgressive story of Anna Karenina. For me, director Joe Wright has managed something extraordinary in his beautiful enchanting film. From the first frame which announces the film in Cyrillic style lettering and looks like the page of a 19th century novel transposed onto theatrical curtains, he can do no wrong. By setting the action in a theatre, Wright uses the Brechtian device of the Verfremdungseffekt (translated as ‘defamiliarization, distancing or estrangement effect’) The idea being to destabilise or question the bourgeois concept of theatre by stating from the outset that what we are seeing is a fiction, something made up for our entertainment.

Wright was originally going to film Karenina on location in Russia but as this was going to prove too expensive, decided to film it mostly inside an old theatre. This economic restraint however proved to be dramatically and creatively important. As Wright has stated, people in Russian society in St Petersburg and Moscow at that time acted as if they were on a stage, they spoke French and events such as balls and meals were all carefully choreographed and defined affairs.
Alongside the sumptuous costumes, and sets there are some dazzling effects, such as when Alexander Karenin (played by Jude Law) tears up a letter from his errant wife, and throws the fragments into the air which then turn into a snow fall. In another scene Levin (played by Domhall Gleeson) decides to leave the city and go back to the countryside, as he turns his back on the stage a curtain opens and we are suddenly in a real snow filled Russian landscape. It is the first time that a real location is seen and again the effect is stunning. 

Anna’s lover Vronsky played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, is perfect as the handsome army officer all tousled blonde locks, (reminiscent of Terence Stamp as Troy in Far From the Maddening Crowd) strutting gait and dreamy blue eyes which are set off by his white and blue uniform. Keira Knightly as Anna, has come in for much criticism, almost like the character she is playing she is dammed for being ‘too young’, ‘too thin’, ‘too chinny’. Knightly like Karenina cannot help being beautiful, and in the novel (which I am re-reading) she is described as looking about 20 years old despite her real age which is about 32 (considering that she married Karenin when she was 18 and has a 12 year old son)

For me, Wright has put on screen exactly the Russia of my imagination, he has taken a classic piece of literature and re-assembled it, like a puppet theatre within a snow-shaker. Tom Stoppard has done an admirable job with the screenplay which remains remarkably true to the original cutting out mostly the very boring agricultural details. For me, even with my grand obsession (I have seen the film twice) what I think Wright has done with this film is very important in that he has found a new way of telling an old and well known story, he has not been afraid of employing a very obvious construct and it is this very construct which saves it from Downtown Abbeyisation and which makes some important points about contemporary film storytelling. 

Alex Michon

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