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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I can’t be the only one who has noticed that every dish in the Western world’s a cheese sandwich

Raclette, cheesy crackers, baguettes – even ice-cream is just cheese in waiting.

Scientists examining a chicken nugget have discovered DNA from over a hundred individuals mixed into a fowl mush. It makes you think, doesn’t it? I mean, I always used to say to my kids when they ordered nuggets, “You realise that’s made of crushed-up chicken eyelids and testicles,” but I still imagined these were the parts of at most two or three bodies. And while no one with eyes (lidded or otherwise) could fail to see how disgusting the battery farming industry is, this new intelligence gives it a truly diabolic cast: what we’re participating in here is a sort of chicken holocaust.

I mean, I like Sadiq Khan well enough – I even voted for him to become London mayor; and I applaud his decision to attend a Holocaust memorial event on his first day in office. But c’mon, now, Sadiq, that holocaust took place some time ago, while you can walk past any takeaway, anywhere in Britain, and see a teenager put a hundred chickens in his mouth at once! How much better it is when they stick to their staple food – one that has sustained generations of European and American children, and that, one hopes, will do so for many more years to come. I refer, of course, to the cheese sandwich.

A few weeks ago I was having supper at a pizza joint with my friend Cressida, when she remarked, apropos of my ordering a Caesar salad: “Well, it makes a change from eating a cheese sandwich, which is basically what our kids have at every meal, and we ourselves do for a high proportion of them.” Then she began to itemise some of the meals that are “basically a cheese sandwich”. Lasagne, spaghetti Bolognese with Parmesan cheese, a tricolore salad with a piece of nice, crusty bread? All of these, basically, are cheese sandwiches reconfigured – as is almost all Italian cuisine, the pizza being only the most egrcheesgious example.

“But what about a lovely serving of cassata, or an ice-cream treat?” I hear you moan. To which my only reply is: add a wafer, and in all but name you have a cheese sandwich right there on the plate in front of you. After all, what’s ice cream? Only cheese-in-waiting. Cheesy crackers, cheese footballs, the Swiss raclette – the French onion soup served with a chunk of baguette – the humble ploughman’s lunch, or the businessman’s haughty oysters mornay; all, let’s face it, are basically cheese sandwiches. I’m not arguing that this food monoculture is a bad thing – on the contrary, with whole flocks of chickens being immured in nugget-hecatombs, it’s comforting to realise there are still some things in the world that are fairly undifferentiated. True, a cheese sandwich can be a baroque creation, with choice ingredients piled high on a seeded bun: a meat pattie, lettuce, tomato, a wedge of cheese and a dill pick— Oh! silly me, that’s a cheeseburger.

But alternatively a cheese sandwich can be beautifully simple. Consider the lonely Anatolian shepherd, a figure out of antiquity with his woollen cloak and untreated hypotension. See him withdraw a hard disc of unleavened bread from the folds of his cloak; see him withdraw a lump of hard cheese from some other folds of his cloak. See him combine them – and reflect that what you are witnessing is a way of making of a cheese sandwich which has remained unchanged for millennia, perhaps since the very first Anatolian grabbed a lactating ewe and rubbed its udder against some emmer wheat, so commencing the whole strange business we call civilisation.

About ten thousand years later, this phenomenon has bodied forth into the world we see about us: a society in which fortunes can be won or lost on the turn of a cheese toastie. One multimillionaire who owes his fortune in large part to an ability to dream up felicitous combinations of basic wheat and dairy products is Jamie Oliver. On his website, he discusses making a cheese sandwich with such oracular eloquence that, reading him, I felt I had a direct connection to some great prophet or otherwise holy man.

“A toasted cheese sandwich is a beautiful thing,” he writes, at once drawing our attention to the sheer wondrousness of God’s creation, “but I’m not messing about here – this is the ultimate one and it’s going to blow your mind.” Whoa! There it is – suddenly you’re in the presence of Ecclesiastes, half expecting Jamie to assert that, of the making of many cheese sandwiches, there is no end (which indeed is the case, especially if you’re taking young folk camping).

Instead, the man who has done more for Britain’s children than anyone since Lord Shaftesbury admonishes us in more exultant tones: “But there is a particular sequence of events that needs to happen in order to achieve the most ridiculously tasty, chomp-worthy sandwich.” In other words, the road of wisdom leads to the palace of excess, because: “Follow this recipe, and it will always make you feel good. It is also especially useful when you’re suffering from a light hangover. This is when the condiments – dolloped on to a side plate like a painter’s palette – really come into their own.”

Stirring stuff, which is why I’m getting up a subscription to replace Eros with a life-size nude statue of Jamie Oliver pointing a fondue fork towards the East End.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster