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!