Big applause for Anna Karenina (film, 2012)

I rarely shed a tear in the cinema. But tonight, it was because of emotions that, as they were expressed so accurately, simply blew me away.

I do not recommend to even watch the trailer for Anna Karenina (2012) – it will not do the film justice. What it fails to do is to point out its main leitmotif: theatricality, which brings with it the ideas of falseness, pathological curiosity and judgement. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is highly admired and respected and starts out by seeming to be a beautiful and complete woman of Imperial Russia. The film’s opening scene presents her as she is getting dressed by her maids. Although her attire is not complete, she is following a choreography and showing herself even to her maids as a woman who is collected. This clothing style is met again toward the end of the film, shortly before her fall and when she can no longer hide, not in white but in red.

Keira Knightley receives a lot of criticisms. I must say I have not seen that many of her films but I think that on screen, she is very enjoyable. During the film, I forgot that I see her practically every week in magazines and perfume ads, and that shows that she did reach a new level.

On the other hand, all eyes seem to be on Jude Law’s performance as Count Karenin: he was stunning and was the reason my eyes watered. The Count’s character in this story is such an interesting one, as you get to know a man of the highest status who loses part of his control and faith in love because of his wife and her neuroses, but ends up forgiving her because of his incredibly good heart. One reaches a point where we hate Anna for what she has done to him, and that is the beautiful strength Law gives to this character. Two heartbreaking moments are firstly when, at the horse race, after Anna has cried her lover Vronsky’s first name Alexei (which is also Karenin’s), he tries to save his reputation and personal shame and says to her “I am here”; and secondly when he takes Vronsky’s hand while she is ill and asks him to do so.

The first fifteen minutes of the feature were rhythmed to the millisecond and took the audience in in a completely new way. As the scenes are at first mostly set in a theatre, we witness costume changes, doors opening on cue, lights changing and splotlights moving around (and sometimes focusing in on Anna). The interesting element is that it is not the stage which is at the heart of the story, which seems a contradiction: it is the seats and the space where the audience usually sits. Indeed, this is the place where people get to watch others, use their binoculars, flirt with forbidden lovers, whisper, laugh and gossip. My companion tonight compared this to our modern social media where people are secretly observing others, trying to look their best, sometimes messaging each other privately (this fits with the various telegraphs in the film, which are often ripped apart) or simply announcing their business publicly. Yet sometimes, as hard as one tries, affairs which should never be public get revealed and one can never take them back.

The backstage and wings are also presented as settings where people still observe, but do not show that they are doing so. There is less motion and more listening. Being backstage does not mean that one is off the hook and at peace, as some of its residents are responsible for what happens out in the open.

The scenes that are completely exterior to the theatre, often in crowded cities or empty fields, are those that let the characters discover their lives’ real meanings, and where they are most honest. Funnily enough, while I first thought that too much was taking place in the theatre, I later found myself missing it, and was in a way reassured when the story took me back to it. Perhaps it was a way for the director to show that these characters (and the immersed audience) regard this false venue as their life boat and as their ticket to remain in society.

Tonight, I was transported to a place where dancers do not shake their bottoms but exquisitely and precisely twirl their arms and where a warm wooden house with a fireplace in the middle of the Russian countryside seems like the place to find inner peace, away from the overanalysing of privileged city-dwellers.

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Filed under Film, Theatre

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