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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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit