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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism