Gilbey on Film: Drama queens

A theatrical setting undermines Joe Wright's Anna Karenina.

The Little Angel Theatre  opened up shop in Islington, north London, in 1961. It’s a treasure trove of imagination, where a blend of simplicity and sophistication produces puppetry productions that draw gasps from audience members - and not just the tiny ones. (It’s also, for those of us who have taken our children there over the years, forever the fount of some poignant memories.) As I watched the new film version of Anna Karenina, I thought back to the many hours I’ve spent at the Little Angel, and some of the sights I’ve seen there: a DIY rendering of the capital’s skyline, with a bicycle wheel standing in for the London Eye, or a shimmering, shadowy version of The Little Mermaid, or a re-telling of the Noah story in which the animal puppets were passed around the audience’s hungry hands before entering the ark.

This isn’t an entirely spurious connection: Anna Karenina has been directed by Joe Wright, whose parents founded the Little Angel, and it leans toward the kind of resourcefulness for which that theatre is renowned. Wright’s solution to the over-familiarity of the locations he scouted was to take Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Tolstoy and transfer the action largely to the inside of a theatre. This is not the first time the proscenium arch has been used as an ongoing frame inside the frame: Wright’s technique recalls Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and Peter Greenaway’s The Baby of Mâcon, not to mention large sections of Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. In all these cases, the camera penetrated the fourth wall and explored the nooks and crannies of the theatre sets to which no paying audience would have been privy, even expanding the available space.

Similarly, what we are seeing in Anna Karenina is not quite a play-within-a-film, even though the first sound we hear is the murmuring of an off-screen theatre audience, and the mise-en-scène - footlights, spotlights, the boards of stage and auditorium - is exclusively theatrical. Rather it is a film restaged in the style of theatre, with the camera free to roam within sets that rise and fall or slide sideways. During a fireworks display, the roof of the theatre opens mechanically. As Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) approaches the back wall of the stage, it moves aside without so much as an “Open, sesame” to reveal a vast snowy horizon. (Being the character associated most intimately with nature, Levin is at liberty to leave the increasingly claustrophobic sets and wander through locations that are exterior in practice rather than merely theory.) No attempt is made to disguise the fact that a train shown steaming across the horizon comes courtesy of Hornby.

It’s all very stimulating for the eye, and a good deal more memorable than the previous screen version (directed by Bernard Rose in 1997). Keira Knightley is a driven and tormented Anna: as ever, she’s good enough. Aaron Johnson, brittle and icy-eyed as her lover Vronsky, lacks any swagger or emotional heft. Best of all is Jude Law as Anna’s husband, Karenin; Law shows him being corroded gradually by shame, embarrassment and jealousy, all expressed without much more than an occasional glowering look.

The pity is that the theatrical setting undermines fatally our involvement in the drama. It isn’t just that the theatre places an illogical physical impediment between the audience and the action; it also throws up questions that the movie shouldn’t have to deal with. Where is the audience we can hear? Why can’t they be incorporated into the action? What is the relevance of the theatre, other than to provide the facility for symbolic flourishes (such as the stinging moment when Karenin rips up Anna’s letter, tosses it in the air and out of shot, and is covered a few seconds later by the resulting prodigious snowfall)? The conceit is handsome nonsense—we sit there in the stalls trying to rationalise Wright’s choices on his behalf, whereas it’s surely his job to persuade us that we’re watching a coherent vision.

Shortly before the screening of Anna Karenina which I attended at my local fleapit, there was some surprise in the audience when the Chanel advertisement began, since it showed Knightley rolling around on a bed. (Had the movie started already, without the customary fanfare? Why was nobody wearing period dress?) We weren’t to know this, but the Chanel spot is also directed by Wright. To my mind, there’s something bogus afoot when the actor and director of the film you’re about to watch come on beforehand to try to flog you other people’s products. In that context, it’s hard not to see the movie as an extension of their slick salesmanship. At least in the Chanel ad, we get the message loud and clear: “Buy perfume.” In Anna Karenina, it’s anyone’s guess what Wright is trying to say.

"Anna Karenina" is on release now.

Keira Knightley, star of "Anna Karenina" (Photo: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Disney's failure to find an Arab Princess Jasmine for Aladdin shows the dire state of diversity in film

As a child in the late Nineties, I lived for Aladdin. Yet no actual Arabs or even Indians were involved in the cartoon.

Production on Disney’s new live-action Aladdin, directed by Guy Ritchie, was expected to begin this month, but the studio reportedly struggled to find actors for its lead roles. “Finding a male lead in his 20s who can act and sing has proven difficult,” the Hollywood Reporter claimed. “Especially since the studio wants someone of Middle-Eastern or Indian descent.”

The author described efforts to scout actors in the UK, India, Egypt and Abu Dhabi, which suggested a concerted effort on Disney’s part to cast non-white stars. However, many critics interpreted the rumoured casting difficulties as a sign that Ritchie might ultimately cast white actors in the roles of Aladdin and Jasmine. “It can’t be easy to cast a Middle Eastern actor as a terrorist but difficult to cast the same people in a leading role,” argued Rawan Eewshah in Allure, “or is this all a ploy to whitewash the characters?”

The hunt for Aladdin and Jasmine has become a global conversation on social media. In India, it has prompted collective eye-rolls considering the wealth of Bollywood actors trained in both acting and singing. Disney fans from across Europe, America, India and the Middle East have compiled long lists of suggestions drawn from Bollywood and Middle Eastern pop culture icons. Then there's the subset of criticism questioning the fact that Ritchie and the studio were casting Indian actors at all, given that the characters appear to be Arab.

In the event, most seemed happy with the announcement of Will Smith as the Genie, and the eventual decision to cast the Canadian-Egyptian Mena Massoud as Prince Ali. However, the decision to cast Naomi Scott, who is half Indian and half white, as Princess Jasmine, has caused further controversy, with many critics claiming that Disney should have cast an Arab actress.

This is not the first Aladdingate. Even in 1993, audiences were unhappy with the cartoon Aladdin’s portrayal of Arab culture. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert noted with frustration that most “of the Arab characters [had] exaggerated facial characteristics – hooked noses, glowering brows, thick lips – but Aladdin and the princess look like white American teenagers.”

In response to protests from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Walt Disney Studios agreed to change the offensive lyrics to the opening song “Arabian Nights” for the film’s 1993 home video release. The lyrics had referred to the story’s Middle Eastern setting as a “barbaric” land where “they’ll cut off your ear if they don’t like your face”. Former Disney executive Dick Cook defended the song, claiming that: “The irony in all of this is that this is the first movie in years where both the hero and heroine are Arabic, and both are obviously terrific role models, not just for Arabs but for everybody.”

As a kid in the late Nineties, I lived for Aladdin. I spent much of my childhood dressing up as Princess Jasmine, convinced that my own Indian culture was reflected in the film’s imagery and cultural symbolism. It is only in more recent years that I have come to terms with the fact that the extent of the depiction of Indian “culture” in the film is Jasmine’s pet tiger, Rajah.

In actuality, the 1992 animated film is a white dream about the Middle East, lazily conflated with India (the Sultan’s palace is based on the Taj Mahal). It may have its origins in an ancient Syrian folk tale, but it is now painfully clear to me that the film is essentially an original work by a group of white men with a distorted and disturbingly orientalist view of the monolithic “East”. 

Despite their story being set in the fictional Middle Eastern region of Agrabah, and despite the film's (human) characters all having Arab names, the voice cast of Disney’s original Aladdin movie is entirely white. No actual Arabs or even Indians were involved in the making of the film.

Hollywood’s diversity problem is so dire that grown men and women across three continents are arguing about the ethnic integrity of the cast of Aladdin, a children’s cartoon that a group of white people made about a Middle Eastern kingdom that doesn’t exist. Our one hotly contested property in Western pop culture is a children’s musical cartoon starring Robin Williams. Aladdin was, and still is, important to me and my Arab, South Asian and Muslim friends, however problematic the depiction. Jasmine was brown, just like we were (and are) – and sadly, that was enough.

No one* is daft enough to believe that Aladdin is any kind of credible mythology. But in terms of positive on-screen depictions of Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage and complexions, Aladdin is still as good as it gets. We are given so little time on-screen (and most of that time is taken up by portrayals of us as terrorists) that we are willing to settle for lazy cultural stereotypes and caricatures that erase our differences.

Of course, Middle Eastern and Indian cultures and people are not interchangeable. No one should treat them as such, from Disney to those making casting suggestions. As for me, I don’t believe that accurately casting Arab actors in the leading roles of the live-action remake is enough to correct the original Aladdin’s racist presentation of the Arab world as a “barbaric” region where “they will cut off your ear if they don’t like your face”. Still, it would have been a start.

*Except perhaps for the 41 per cent of Donald Trump supporters who said they were in favour of bombing Agrabah, the (fictional) homeland of Aladdin, in December 2015.