The Show Must Go On

What do Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh and Sophie Marceau have in common?  It’s very possible that our parents might know the answer to that question before we actually do.
The answer tells of a story that my mother remembers reading back in her school years, and has watched one of its movie adaptations in later years. Hint:  Those three actresses have all starred as her.

Guessed the answer yet?

Here’s another hint: For those of you who have seen Atonement and loved it, you’re in for another treat.  Atonement‘s director Joe Wright has once again produced a stunning work of art: a film adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.  You have guessed it right if you thought that all of the above leading ladies have starred as Anna in different movies throughout the years (1935, 1948 and 1997 respectively).  The story is set in 19th century Russia and is about love in all of its forms and meanings:

Anna, a young wife and mother, fell in love with a man who doesn’t happen to be her husband.  Being constantly in the spotlight of society’s ever scrutinous eye and the shadow of her very faithful husband, she is in a constant battle between mind and heart as she alone must choose her course which will impact all those surrounding her whatever her choice may be.  These are some of the universal themes that have made this story a timeless one and one of the main reasons why it has been adapted numerous times for the screen.  Here’s the trailer of Wright’s latest adaptation:

Since this classical novel has undergone several cinematic treatments throughout the years, one might ask: what makes the 2012 version any different?  (Warning: Spoilers ahead):

1)   Setting most of the film in a theatre: this decision changed the entire look of the film.  (Imagine having a train station or a horse race in a theatre!), and;

2)   Pure cinematic poetry: which I attribute to subtle, yet lasting and powerful moments (usually a mere exchange of glances or a hat ribbon flowing with the wind in a moving carriage).

Let’s have a more in-depth look at these two elements.

What’s so special about setting the film in a theatre?

Films usually are shot either on-location in a real setting or in a studio on a built set.  Therefore the deliberate choice to set the film in a theatre and the use of the various spaces (the stage, backstage, the seating area in front of the stage as well as the balconies) in which props and backgrounds constantly change (sometimes even on-screen) to other different locations such as a dining room, a train station, a child’s bedroom, a ballroom or the grandest of all: a horse racing track.  Joining up the dots of the “missing” finishes of the setup are all left at the mercy of the audience’s imagination…an aspect which I really loved to explore as I was watching it.  The most amazing thing about this conscious decision (apart from the wonderful and awesome backgrounds and backdrops) is the purpose behind it as indicated in the following video:

Here’s what the talent and the director had to say about the choice for the theatre setting from the video above:

“The Russian aristocracy at that time were constantly looking to France and trying to emulate that way of being.  You did have these people that were pretending to be something that they weren’t all the time.”  – Keira Knightly (who plays Anna Karenina)

“They were living their life as if they were on a stage and this gave me the idea to set the majority of the film in a theatre.” – Joe Wright, director.

“We are in a world that offers itself up as unreal, infact it is always magical and fantastical.” – Jude Law (who plays Alexei Karenin)

“It is always a space that totally changes.” – Keira Knightley

That concept is what primarily attracted me to this movie.  With this in mind, the viewer would be able to play a more active part while watching it by attempting to understand the reasoning behind it all, as well as relish in the most beautiful backgrounds, props and compositions:

The Subtle Moments

I have to admit that I need to watch this movie again (and again) to fully appreciate the smallest things in it, but some of those moments have somehow stayed with me.  Watching an entire scene of two of the characters making up using only alphabet cubes as they make up words and sentences with no use of dialogue at all while intercutting between the lovers’ hopeful yet uneasy glances has been fascinating to watch, as much as watching Anna’s husband tear up his wife’s letter and throwing it up in the air only for the thorn pieces of paper to fall slowly and silently accompanied by falling snow in the theatre.  Both are such magical moments.

To me personally the climax of these scenes is the horse race that takes place on the stage and backstage of the theatre.  Amidst the supporters watching the race, we see Anna who is only focusing on her lover racing, while her husband at the other end of the theatre watches Anna’s every single glance and move.  The horses race onto the stage, visible only for a few moments until they vanish in the darkness of the empty backstage to complete their lap, until they appear once again for a few moments on stage for the next lap.  The director plays with the audience’s minds to enthrall them as much as a magician stupefies kids with his magic tricks by contrasting the bleakness of the backstage moments with the ones on stage where all the majority of the drama happens thanks to the glances of the three persons caught in a love triangle .  Here are more examples:

The ribbons flowing with the wind in slow-motion as seen through the eyes of the man who loves her.

The laps of horse race in the theatre had to race through the backstage with moments of slow motion in nothing but a black empty space which heavily contrasts with the fast paced, vivid moments as they get on stage where the audience cheers for them.

The choreography of the dance sequence is extraordinarily mesmerising as it builds to a head-spinning climax.

Although I found that some characters lacked depth, for those who love the attention to detail, lavish costumes and beautiful backdrops, this surely is a film not worth missing especially for its stunning visual imagery.  If I had to compare this film to any other film for the same reason of its visual meticulous splendour, The Fall by Tarsem Singh would be it.

Official Site:

Anna Karenina (2012)

Another film to look forward to this December:

Les Miserables

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