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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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

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.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era