I recently watched the new film adaptation of Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright, which I had been eager to see despite poor reviews because of the artistic choice to shoot the film in a theatre. I was curious to see how the crew used the space of the theatre and to what effect, and what it might have to offer regarding the relationship between film and theatre. But after seeing the movie, I couldn’t help but unfortunately conclude that it was the filmic equivalent of this iPod dock made out of a vintage gramophone.
Of course, there is the the trauma of watching Anna, one of the most compelling characters in fiction, being portrayed by Keira Knightley, one of the most rubbish actors in Hollywood. And there is the absurd lack of chemistry between Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who makes for a foppish Vronsky. But what disappointed me most about the film was the total lack of justification for shooting it in a theatre. The theatre acts as hardly noticeable backdrop for realistic 19th-century drawing room sets at one point and obtrudes into the viewer’s attention at others, as when we find the progressively-thinking Levin’s impoverished younger brother living far up in the wings, amid the ropes for pulling curtains. Great ball scenes take place not on the stage of the theatre, but rather on the ground, all sign of seating for an audience having been removed in favor of divans and banquet tables for the sophisticated Russian party guests.
One might generously argue that the use of the theatre as set in “Anna Karenina” draws viewers’ attention to the artificial nature of performance, one that is often all too easy to overlook when viewing a film. The use of the theatre could thus serve as a commentary on the artifice of film and reveal the tenuous relationship between what is considered ‘offstage’ and what is performed ‘onstage.’ However, the film as a whole does not support this interpretation. Rather, the theatrical set appears a futile gesture toward a nostalgic past that no longer has any relevance– just as the gramophone turned iPod dock. Certainly, both the gramophone and the theatre in these cases provide beautiful settings, and there is a place in contemporary culture for vintage tastes. But here, they fall flat. They rather limply indicate a flaccid kind of nostalgia that proves inefficacious: a kind of nostalgia regrettably trendy today. And in “Anna Karenina,” what could have been a provocative gesture toward the relation of viewer to the artifice of performance–and even to the artifice of social convention, as important as it is proves to be in Anna’s tragic tale–turns out to be an irrelevant and unnecessary piece of frippery appended to an already farcical interpretation of Tolstoy’s brilliant novel.