Culture, In Brief

I saw Anna Karenina last night. I was prepared to be disappointed; I had heard disconcerting reports of it all being set in an empty theatre, and with Keira Knightley in the lead role, I didn’t have high hopes for the quality of the acting. However, I was more than pleasantly surprised. I loved the theatrical setting; the whole film – apart from the countryside scenes –  was shot in a dilapidated theatre, the cast picking their way over props, sitting in the balcony seats and climbing up and down the stairs onto the stage, oblivious of their surroundings. Every movement was highly choreographed, the actors twirling from scene to scene, moving in rhythmic gestures that emphasised the falsity of their world and the way in which societal convention orchestrated every corner of their lives. When Levin walked off into the countryside, he walked through the back of the stage and out into the open air, the sky and the meadows unfurling before him, opening up into a huge unfettered landscape that was a breath of fresh air compared to the closed and shadowy backdrop of the theatre. It shouldn’t work, but it does; it is a daring and clever piece of cinema that approaches a well worn story in a totally new way. It distils the essence of Anna Karenina into two hours of visual delight, paring it down to its bare necessities and so giving the story a profundity that the book can often struggle to convey thanks to its hefty amounts of extraneous padding. Keira Knightley was surprisingly good as Anna, unravelling convincingly before our eyes as she realises that Vronsky is not the answer to her boredom and unhappiness, and Jude Law’s Karenin was the touchingly sympathetic figure, both misunderstood and misunderstanding, that I discovered on my latest re-read. Levin and Kitty were a delight, as were Oblonsky and Dolly. The only bum note was Vronsky, who skulked about like a stroppy teenager with hair that looked like it hadn’t been washed in six weeks. He lacked gravitas and complexity, and felt like an afterthought rather than a central character. It really is an intriguing piece of cinema, and interprets the characters in a way that actually made me fleetingly want to pick the book up and try again. So, do go and watch it – it’s a beautiful film and offers something very different to the usual take on period drama, which was a surprisingly refreshing change and one that I think should be applauded.

I wasn’t quite as enamoured with the return of Downton Abbey, which is seamlessly linked with Anna Karenina as Michelle Dockery appears in both (see photo above – spot a familiar Lady Mary face?!). The original magic has definitely gone. Julian Fellowes has never managed to recapture the freshness and ingenuity of the first series, that promised a new dawn for original period drama. The dialogue was witty, the storylines believable, the pace slow and the key plots unfurled over several tantalising episodes. Last series it stopped being period drama and became a soap opera in fancy clothes, and the first episode of the third series wasn’t much different, unfortunately. The dialogue was hopelessly clunky and in places rather cheesy, there were speedy resolutions to really quite significant issues, and even Dame Maggie looked like she was acting by numbers. I hope tonight’s will be a little bit more like the original series that endeared so many of us to Downton, otherwise I’m not sure if I’ll want to carry on watching. I for one am particularly tired of the whole Bates in prison scenario…one plot point I wish HAD been wrapped up in one episode, like the best never mentioned again Burned Face Fake Patrick, rather than dragged over into yet another series where we get repeated glimpses of pasty faced Bates looking alternately miserable and threatening in a dingy cell made of polystyrene breeze blocks. Compared to Parade’s End, which has just finished on BBC2 and was outstandingly good, it looks so painfully amateur. I highly recommend Parade’s End, by the way; I enjoyed it so much that I have taken the book out of the library and am very much looking forward to tackling it!

Finally, I have finished The Stranger’s Child, at long last. It was fantastic. After a disappointing reading run, it was marvellous to get truly lost in a book again, which transported me to so many different worlds and had such an intriguing and original premise. I will write a proper review this week, but just so as you know, you need to read it! Even if you haven’t liked any of Hollinghurst’s previous novels, I can promise you will like this!

39 comments

  1. Glad you liked the film. I finished the book and loved it apart from about 50 pages where there were rather too many references to snipe shooting…. There are a couple of places where the film does not stack up to the book but mainly I guess to keep the flow of the film. Downton Abbey as you say has been rather disappointing. I don’t think shirley maclaine is going to improve it one bit! Have you read FMB’s ‘the Good Soldier’? – it is also worth a read. Much shorter than the Parades End books.

    1. I’m so glad you loved the book, Janey. I wish I had this time around, but it was still great to refresh my knowledge of it which helped me to get more out of the film. Shirley Maclaine is a bit wooden isn’t she? Not a fan really – she doesn’t fit! Yes I have – I read it a few years ago and remember enjoying it. I’m looking forward to the challenge of Parade’s End!

  2. This is a very intriguing review! I’m also skeptical of Knightly as Anna, not really sure if she was the right casting choice for this one even if classic heroines are kind of her thing – but I can’t wait to see how it all comes together, it sounds like a really unique / stylistic interpretation of the story! I especially like the way you describe the contrast between the dark, shadowy falsity of the world of the theatre and Lenin’s escape to the open countryside – can’t wait to see it for myself!

    1. I think they could have chosen a better actress, but Knightley genuinely doesn’t do a bad job and she does her best to inhabit the role. I would have preferred a more mature actress but that’s just my preference. Yes, the cinematography is amazing – worth seeing for that alone!

  3. I have just returned from a discussion by Kiran Desai, Lionel Shriver and Alan Hollinghurst on The Lives of Writers. It was wonderful and I now have a signed copy of The Strangers Child to read AND I just bought a copy of Parades End to read so we are really on the same wavelength !!!!!

  4. I agree with your thoughts on the film – I was very pleasantly surprised. The theatrical setting was really refreshing and both Keira Knightly and Jude Law (not normally a fan of either) were great. And I really loved the way the Kitty and Levin story was portrayed because those are my favourite parts of the book.

    As a side note I am just about to finish (with a chapter to go) Parade’s End and would really recommend it. Quite challenging, but worth the effort. I also read The Stranger’s Child earlier in the summer and thought it was brilliant so I am looking forward to reading your thoughts.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it too, Charlotte – it was so refreshing and enjoyable and yes, I loved the Levin and Kitty parts too!

      Fantastic – I’m so glad you think Parade’s End is worth the effort. I am going to get stuck in soon. I need to get writing those The Stranger’s Child thoughts!

    1. I think you should, Penny! It really is a brilliant film! The second episode of DA was slightly better so I am hoping it will be onwards and upwards as the series progresses!

  5. Anna Karenina got quite a bit of buzz here in the US after the Toronto Film Festival. Lots of people there liked it. Maggie Smith is also getting a bit of buzz too after the festival for her work in Dustin Hoffman’s new film about retired opera singers — can’t remember the name but am dying to see it. I may skip Downton Abbey entirely this year — I don’t think I even made to the end of season 2 — but Dan Stevens is opening here soon in The Heiress so that’s one play that is on my list.

    1. It’s called Quartet – the opera singers film, I mean. I’m going later this week, so will report back.
      Thought last week’s Downton was an improvement on Series 2, although that is faint praise. Still, I can’t abandon it now!

      1. I had a tear in my eye at the end and friend I went with shot up in her seat and shouted Bravo. (That made me jump!) You’ll love it, Rachel. Maggie Smith on fine form.

  6. I’m not sure its fair to compare Downton Abbey and Parades End. One is indulgent Sunday evening entertainment (and nothing wrong with that); the other a lavish adaptation of a lesser known literary work that brings a sense of narrative flow to what is actually a quite experimental novel – or so I believe, I haven’t actually read it. I suppose that comparisons are inevitable, given the similar period setting.

    Did you notice that the minor character of Bertram, who appeared in the final part of Parades End, was played by Jonathan Coy, the same actor who took the part of the Earl of Grantham’s solicitor in Downton? So far as I am aware, he is the only actor who appears in both shows.

    1. Well yes quite…you are right, David, of course…but it is still a bit of a come down after watching such lovely drama!
      No I didn’t! I shall have to look again and see if I can spot him!!

  7. I hope I may get to see the film while its still in the cinema – it sounds fab. The train scenes were filmed at Didcot railway museum near me. Downton is pure fluff soap opera, but still predictable fun, whereas Parades End was extremely good and far more challenging viewing – loved it. We’re reading The Good Soldier next month in our book group – can’t wait.

    1. Oh you definitely should do your best to see it at the cinema, Annabel – it’s one of those films that only really works on the big screen! Oooh The Good Soldier is very good – I hope you’ll all enjoy it!

  8. So pleased you saw Anna Karenina and enjoyed it – a lovely weekend film. Hope you have a good week. ps Beginning to have similar thoughts to you on Downton, in fact am blogging whilst watching.

    1. I really did! Thank you – did my first lesson today, very exciting! I know, it’s a shame, isn’t it – I’m not gripped like I used to be, though this week’s was a little more tense….I will say no more!

  9. I’m excited to see Anna Karenina! I expected it to be at least decent, given that Tom Stoppard did the writing (AND on Parade’s End! haHA! Tom Stoppard party on Rachel’s screens!), and if even you — dedicated Keira Knightley disliker that you are — thought it was good, I’m sure I will. Yay.

  10. Thanks for the review! I saw the trailer for Anna Karenina yesterday and was wondering whether it was worth watching and you certainly make it sound interesting- I didn’t realise it was set entirely in a theatre though. I wasn’t that fond of the book, so maybe the movie adaptation will do better?

  11. I have a new find that you may not have read, Book Snob – and I accept that it’s a little out of left field…. The book is Old School, by Tobias Wolff. American, set in the 1960s, at a boy’s school with a culture of hero-worship of literary greats like Frost and Hemingway, who come annually to speak at the school. It’s about guilt, integrity and other big themes, and has some terrific literary pastiche. I heard about it on a Podcast and loved it; I hope you try that too.

  12. I am rather loving Downton, feels indulgent watching it. I just suspend belief for the whole time, although the amount of adverts gets in my nerves a bit!

  13. I loved Anna Karenina too, it’s been a good month for films, off to see the new Woody Allen tomorrow, it has luke warm reviews but as we were in Rome for our holidays it may extend our summer a little longer.

  14. Well I am looking a bit more forward to seeing AK now but I do think it’s going to take the promise of copious amounts of popcorn to get Roman there. Although, having said that…he was racing to the sofa these past few nights to watch Call the Midwife. A friend of ours passed it on as it isn’t airing here until Sunday. And I am a complete sap but I still get giddy at the sound of those first few notes of Downton Abbey (our friend is passing that along as well). Plug in the kettle, where are the biscuits?! I should be on the promotion team!

    1. I think you’d enjoy AK, Darlene, honestly! Roman watching Call the Midwife? Now that’s a fantastic image! Isn’t it wonderful? Oh me too – I might moan but Downton Abbey is still my guiltiest pleasure!🙂

  15. Can’t wait to see Anna Karenina! I read some articles and interviews about it and the concept does sound very intriguing. I still haven’t finished the book though, sigh. I’ve been watching the Great British Bake Off but haven’t seen any Season 3 Downton yet…such a shame that it will never be as good as it initially was. Don’t think I’ve heard of Parade’s End before…will check it out😉

    Hope all is going well, Rachel!😀

    1. I’m sure you’d love it, Lucy! You need to find Downton Abbey online…;) you can’t wait until January! Check out Parade’s End…it will probably come to PBS eventually but it’s also on dvd I think. Thank you, it is!🙂

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