Levin Upstaged?

What is to be gained by showing the apparent theatrical mechanics of stage production in a film adaptation of a novel? Joe Wrights direction of Tom Stoppards screenplay of Anna Karenina asserts repeatedly that the social life of late 19th Century Russia is a spectacle. They achieve this by breaking the frame. The camera shows us a theater, and upon the stage, as well as in the wings and in the galleries, and on catwalks above the stage, the characters make their entrances and exits. Interludes in particular offer us no doubt that what we are watching is staged, a world of appearances. We watch as the toy train changes into one with real carriages and as sliding stage flats open out of Moscow interiors on to country harvests .The titled folk and landed gentry are on stage, and their scripts have rules. Audience and actors change roles easily; people in the cinema seats join those in the camera frame, and we are reminded that to view is to be viewed. To break the rules is to entertain either tragedy or removal from Society; both involve judgments about the game played and how it is played out. The cinema viewers are both excluded from the game and invited to be judges of the players fates.Oddly, the theatrical trope does not lead to the sense that indeed all the actions of the principals are scripted, that they are determined in some way by the invisible hand of the author/director. The emphasis shifts to that of involvement in drama, and frequently to the characters awareness of the personal being played out in public. Anna and Vronsky pursue their ends as their intimacies alternate with sliding backdrops and overhead camera shots.No more brilliant union of the real and make-believe (worked out on the screen of illusions) occurs then in the dancing at the grand ball. The waltzes are choreographed with elaborate and sinewy hand movements; the dance partners offer a stylized grace that in its artfulness approaches the ritual movement of courting birds. What indeed does lies behind passion? Instinctual drives mediated through the artifice of dance? Yet obviously, as the camera tells the viewer in response to the reactions of those watching the dance, this is courtship ritual.Stoppards selection of scenes, the necessary paring down of the lengthy text, works to cast Karenin in an altogether more favorable, indeed noble, light. The concluding scene, in which he sits in an idyllic rural setting, reading while his and Annas child and Annas bastard daughter play under his protection, suggests the positive effect of suffering upon him. The novel is scarcely so generous. The scene happens, oddly, off in so far as it is removed from the mechanisms of the theater. Perhaps another and significant use of the trope.The film is very much Annas story; Levins passion, growth, idealistic commitment, and ultimate happiness are more suggested than dramatized. It is he who gets short shrift in the adaptation. This is not to assert uselessly that the film is not the book, but rather to admire the effects of the change in medium: page to screen, authors vision and directors cut. The theatrical trope stands as a reversal of Choruss appeal to the audience at the beginning of Henry V: the unworthy scaffold does bring forth/So great an object. The cockpit holds in abundant ways the cities and the fields of Russia.  

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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