It was Baz Luhrmann who coined the phrase “red curtain cinema” to cover his loose trilogy Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge. What he meant by it was film that embraced the theatre and revelled in the theatricality of performance, even when frozen in celluloid and thus robbed of that particular verité. Song, dance, heightened reality, a certain opulence, a sense of camp, grandeur and all-round stagey staging add to the effect, and as someone who saw Moulin Rouge in a huge, impersonal West End cinema in the immediate, overcast aftermath of 9/11 and found myself part of an ordinary paying audience cheering at the end, I can account for the best of the effect “red curtain” achieves.
Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina is part of that tradition. It wasn’t always meant to be this way – indeed, Wright’s last-minute decision to re-stage and shoot Tolstoy’s torrid aristo-romance in a theatre and to make that its narrative and visual advantage apparently drained the colour from screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s cheeks, and has rubbed some critics up the wrong way, too. Me? I found it not only bold and brave, but mostly thrilling. A gamble that paid off.
Historically, the novel was staged before it was filmed, in 1907, but its most famous adaptations have been for the screen – Greta Garbo in the 1935 version; the 1977 BBC series with Nicola Pagett; perhaps even the 1997 one with Sophie Marceau, the first Hollywood adaptation to be filmed in actual Russia. This, however, is something different. It begins in the theatre, with Matthew McFadyen playing Count Oblonsky in heightened farce mode, and the actors moving betweens sets and backdrops, with stage hands lurking and scenery being changed. The “realism” of the theatrical setting is challenged at key moments; firstly, when Levin (a suitably dour and serious Domhnall Gleeson) leaves St Petersburg for the countryside and steps outside of the theatre into a vast, David Lean-style snowy landscape. (I haven’t read or studied the book, but I can see that the contrast between the ritualised dance of town and the agrarian honesty of the country is key.)
For me, when the action deliberately and symbolically moves outside of the constrictions of the theatre to convey the vastness and openness of the country – where, for instance, Levin mucks in with the workers on his estate in what looked like a deliberate, dappled echo of Days Of Heaven – some of the film’s singular magic ebbs away and the film becomes conventional again. (That said, the way the scythes swoosh in time to Dario Marianelli’s soundtrack pulls it back a bit.) Conversely, when Keira Knightley, as Anna, sits beneath a toy railway to reassure her young son before heading off to Moscow, and then we zoom in on the lit carriages of the toy train in a fake snowscape, wherein Anna now travels, it is a captivating leap from artifice to “reality”.
Some have found Wright’s approach a bit “arm’s length”, and criticised him for removing us from the emotion of the story by placing obstacles in our way, but while I accept that much of the cleverness – including a horse race with actual horses also held inside the dilapidated auditorium, and a government office building transformed into a restaurant, with workers revealing aprons beneath their formal suits to become waiters – is designed to dazzle rather than involve, this is an artistic risk, and you have to credit Wright for taking it.
And anyway, the performances are rich and real enough, notably Knightley’s and that of Jude Law as her cuckolded husband. Both these performers improve with age, and while Law might have been playing the cocky Count Vronsky if the film had been made ten years ago, I prefer him as the balding, formal, upstanding Count Karenin. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is Vronksy, and embodies all the arrogance of privileged youth. He’s not likable, but is he supposed to be? Too many decent actresses are reduced to cameos – Shirley Henderson, Holliday Grainger, Emily Watson, Michelle Dockery, even Ruth Wilson’s part is relatively small – but then this is one of those lavish costumed productions that actors presumably fall over themselves to be in, and in the patriarchal society it depicts, the men are in charge while the ladies fan themselves in royal boxes. Of the female characters, only Anna is allowed any real substance.
At its most Luhrmann-esque, a courtly dance, choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, seems to blend a more modern framework over the 19th century formality, with an intricate interweaving of hands and arms that almost threatens to usher in a modern dance track, as per Moulin Rouge (amid whose wayward wackiness, it might have worked). Thankfully, this never happens, and Wright keeps a tighter lid on the inner logic of his production. I almost yelped when Vronksy and Karenin – by now locked in a Cold War for Anna’s affections – leave and enter by adjoining revolving doors in the lobby of the theatre, glimpsing each other through the glass; this is Wright hitting the jackpot.
It’s a long book, and the film is too, at 130 minutes, towards the end of which I found myself drifting a little. But overall, despite the aforementioned remoteness, I thought this Anna was a treat. Oh, those Russians.