Anna Karenina (2012)

It is a good sequence, Anna Karenina read-along then the movie after. Screenwriter Tom Stoppard wrote as if his viewers already knew the story well, or have seen other film versions, for here, we are watching a highly stylized adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic novel, and it seems that it is a case of style over story.

Anna Karenina Poster

Joe Wright’s (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) version is a bold and therefore risky direction. Instead of a realistic rendering of Tolstoy’s epic, Wright offers us a new portal into the story of Anna Karenina. All the world’s a stage, and if anything, the highly reverberated gossip of Petersburg, the adulterous affair of Anna, wife of the respected government official Alexei Karenin with Count Vronsky is aptly rendered a spectacle. Wright’s innovative concept is an interesting take, weaving his characters between the front and the backstage and into the ‘real’ set.

The idea is brilliant, the permeability of actors in and out of limelight, mingling between their own realities, and the idea that all the world’s a stage, one is both an actor and a spectator.

However, the major premise of the cinema is make-believe. It is the ‘realness’, the believability of the characters and their predicaments that arouse our empathy. That happens when we emotionally immerse into the film. As a result, we care for the characters, even though we may not identify with them.

But here while watching this film, I experience a kind of cognitive dissonance. With its setting in the theatre, at the front and backstage, it is like a kind of deconstruction if you will, for we see that these are merely actors acting, and not ‘real’. So as a viewer, I’m just like a fly on the wall, observing how a theatrical production is done. As a result, I find myself detached and aloof.

A consequence of the highly stylized gestures and movements is that they lead to overacting. And with that, believability is compromised. Now, by genre this is not a musical, so, when seeing characters walk like they’re dancing or their actions performed in unison, like the public servants rubber-stamping paper works, the effect is comical. Well, it might be the intended effect, but one that sticks out in a contrived way. The harvesting scene with the workers swinging their scythe at the same time (do they actually do that in real life, for morale?) is another example, makes me think of how natural the harvesting scenes are in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.

For some reasons, far from Anna Karenina, I have Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in my mind as an example of a successful stylized and yet captivating film.

Nevertheless, there are many admirable elements in the film. First the sumptuous set design and costumes. The continuous camera work from scene to scene is interesting to watch. But after a while, I feel like I need a breather. Thanks to the external shots, albeit few and far between, I can get a gulp of fresh air.

And I must mention a couple of impressive scenes. First is at the beginning, the opening ball where Kitty sees Anna dancing with Vronsky. That scene is well done in its dramatic effects. I can see the actors’ inner turmoils exposed believably, and for a rare moment, Anna’s conscience at work.

Another one is the horse race. It is interesting to see a horse race in a theatrical setting, like an indoor corral. Putting the horse race in a theatre does not seem to work for me at first, but Wright has handled it effectively… Vronsky’s falling, Anna’s outburst, the shooting of the back-broken horse is one of the few captivating moments in the film.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson

As for the casting, I’m afraid it looks like there is a bit of a miscast for one. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is believable as a young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy, but here in his blond curls and starched white uniform, he looks more like a truant school boy than the military rising star Vronsky.

Keira Knightly’s poise and costume give an apt portrayal of Anna. But sometimes her facial expressions make her look like a rebellious teenager, fighting house rules and ennui.

The one role I enjoy most is Matthew MacFadyen’s Oblonsky. My opinion might differ with many. I think he is a much more convincing Oblonsky here than Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (2005), another Wright’s production. Jude Law’s character is also well-portrayed as Anna’s restrained husband Karenin the government bureaucrat.

Good to see two of Downton Abbey’s actors in the film, Michelle Dockery (Mary Crawley) as Princess Myagkaya and for a brief minute Thomas Howes (Footman William) as Yashvin.

While the love affair between Anna and Vronsky leaves me quite detached, I do see love in others. I see it in Levin’s (Domhnall Gleeson) quiet yearning for Kitty (Alicia Vikander). I see it too in Kitty’s selfless caring for Levin’s ailing brother Nikolai (David Wilmot), and at the end I see it in Anna’s son Serhoza’s (Oskar McNamara) endearing concern for his toddler half-sister, and I see it in his father Karenin’s slight contented smile looking at his son care for Anna’s child with Vronsky.

And with that scene the film ends. All in all, the production is a brave new look at an old story. It can well lead to more readers trying to discover all the left-out conversations and story lines. And so be it, a worthy attempt to turn viewers back to the book.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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CLICK HERE to read my posts of Anna Karenina read-along.

Nowhere Boy (2009)

“He’s a real Nowhere Man
Sitting in his Nowhere Land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody”

—– John Lennon’s ‘Nowhere Man’

Other than the iconic first chord of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ at the beginning of the movie, there is no mention of The Beatles in Nowhere Boy, which is fitting.  After all, the film is not about the Beatles, but a teenaged boy by the name of John Lennon growing up aimless and angry, and how he found passion and poured his life into a goal that finally led him to become one of the most important music figures of our time.

An apt title.  Lennon had had a tumultous childhood.  Raised by his aunt Mimi since five years-old, he did not meet his birth mother again, Mimi’s younger sister Julia, until he was 15.  The film picked up from there until he went to Hamburg in 1960.  Screenwriter Matt Greenhaigh had crafted a moving relational story based on the book written by John Lennon’s half-sister, Julia Baird, entitled Imagine This: Growing Up with My Brother John Lennon.

I’ve particularly enjoyed the mother-son relationship depicted so poignantly in the movie, and the tug of war between the one who has given birth to and the one who has raised the child.  For me, there is also a bit of competition, comparing the two amazing actors, Anne Marie Duff as Julia, Lennon’s birth mother, and Kristin Scott Thomas, as Aunt Mimi, who has raised the boy, stayed with him through thick and thin, and watched him emerge into a man of importance.

Everyone who watches a movie does so from his/her own frame of reference and perspective. While I’ve enjoyed the pre-Beatles era music and the early rock and roll in the film, as well as the human interest of youth striving to gain some sense of self, I’m nevertheless drawn to Scott Thomas’s role as Aunt Mimi.  She has shown what a mother is, even though she is not the one who has given birth to John.  She is someone who stays and not escapes, who takes care of daily tedium, who instills the ever unpopular notions of discipline and responsibility, and who takes nasty insults and hurting actions from a rebellious and still maturing teenager, all because of love.  Scott Thomas’s marvellous performance as the strict and stern Mimi is an effective foil against Duff’s frolicking Julia.  Both performances are moving.

Aaron Johnson has done a marvellous job in portraying a tormented soul torn between these two women. Meeting his birth mother Julia at 15, he can feel right away the thickness of blood.  On the outset, his musical talent has come from Julia, and his free spirit a natural extension of hers, yet he knows he is also tied to Mimi, and despite her restrained persona, he knows she has loved him deeply.

On his first gig as the Quarrymen, John is introduced to a fifteen year-old well-mannered teen by the name of Paul McCartney, nicely played by Thomas Brodie Sangster. Again, an effective foil between the two.  Paul is gentle, polite, chooses tea over beer, and does not have to bust and bang to release his pent-up emotions.  He also helps John with his guitar skills, teaching him more chords, and suggesting they write their own songs.  Paul definitely has it all collected under a stronger self despite the loss of his own mother just a year earlier.  Thus marks the beginning of a valuable friendship.

The fine production is significant considering it is a fact-based biopic of a period of Lennon’s life that has not been explored on film. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, 2008) has crafted some colorful renditions for this period film.  The two sisters are also color-coded, Julia in red and pink, and Mimi, back and grey.  A bit too dramatic at times, but the point well taken, maybe something to do with director Sam Taylor-Wood being a visual artist before this her first feature film.  Also, some scenes may look melodramatic, but I was so immersed in the story I had thoroughly enjoyed them. The most moving scenes come at the end, and all the way through the credits.  That is when real photos and actual historical accounts are revealed, a poignant resonance to the film.

At the beginning of the end credits, we see that the film is dedicated to Anthony Minghella (1954-2008), the Oscar winning director who had brought us the The English Patient (1996), Cold Mountain (2003) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), to name a few.  Minghella was instrumental in encouraging director Sam Taylor-Wood to make the transition from visual artist to filmmaker, and had worked with her on her short Love You More, which has earned her a nom for the Golden Palm at Cannes 2008.

Nowhere Boy garnered four BAFTA nominations including Outstanding British Film and Outstanding Debut Director for Sam Taylor-Wood.   Both Scott Thomas and Duff were nominated for BAFTA and The British Independent Film Awards, which Duff won, as well as the London Critics Circle Film Awards. Johnson’s impressive performance also led him to noms and wins.  Overall, a moving tribute to a pop icon and the two mother figures that had shaped his early life.

~~~ Ripples