Anna Karenina & West of Memphis

February 16, 2013
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William Faulkner, Nobel prize winning author and sometime Hollywood scriptwriter, was once asked to nominate the three greatest novels of all time. He replied: “Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina and Anna Karenina.”

The problem with making a film adaptation of a literary masterpiece is that it is impossible to translate the complexity of the book into a standard two-and-a-bit hours running time, yet the undying populariity of the story means there’ll always be room for another attempt. Prior to Joe Wright’s new offering there have been a dozen films of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, four of them Russian.

There have also been five television adaptations, including a ten part series by the BBC in 1977. Such inordinate length may be the only way to cover the many themes of Tolstoy’s story, but it is a laborious solution. For the most part, directors have had to decide which bits to leave out, which to rearrange or condense. An American rendition of 1927 added a happy ending.

The most acclaimed version probably remains Clarence Brown’s production of 1935, with Greta Garbo in the title role. I confess I’ve yet to see this sentimental favourite, although Garbo’s smouldering appeal belongs to another world nowadays, let alone another decade. The version I do know, is Julien Duvivier’s 1948 adaptation, with Vivien Leigh in the title role.

Duvivier remains one of the most underrated directors of the twenteth century, judging by the small number of his films available on DVD. His Anna Karenina is far from perfect, but it is seductive. Watching this movie it’s possible to forget about the book and lose oneself in the story and the characterisation. Vivien Leigh was 34 in 1948, which is a little old for Anna, but she has a reserved elegance that feels just right.

Keira Knightley, at 27, is a better fit for the character, although Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who plays her lover, Vronsky, is too young at age 22. The difficulty with Knightley’s portrayal is that she lacks a sense of reserve, making her Anna a one-dimensional creation. She is vivacious, but without nuance, while Tolstoy’s Anna contains multitudes.

In her defence, this new Anna Karenina, adapted by playwright, Tom Stoppard, allows no opportunity for method acting. It bears all the hallmarks of a production that is overly conscious of its many predecessors, and sets out to do something bold and different. The Titanic was bold and different too, and this film is a shipwreck on a comparable scale.

One of Stoppard’s best known plays is called Travesties, and his screenplay for Anna Karenina deserves the subtitle: Travesties 2.

Even though this version attempts to include material that has been left out of previous adapations, it is hardly more than a summary of the novel. It moves along in such a disjointed, rapid-fire way it feels as if one is watching an extended trailer. On one hand Stoppard assumes a familiarity with the story, on the other he eviscerates the narrative of any depth and subtlety.

However, the chief architect of the disaster is director, Joe Wright, who had the brilliant idea of filming the action on a kind of large, theatrical stage, complete with footlights, proscenium arch, curtains, and the cheapest-looking sets this side of children’s televison. Even the set piece of the horse race takes place on a stage.

This might have worked if Wright were staging Mother Courage, or a Japanese Noh play, but nothing could be less suitable for Tolstoy, who loathed such artificiality. The novel is remarkable for its psychological power, making us feel we have never gotten the full measure of any character. Just as we begin to feel that Vronsky is a shallow, superflous man he does something that surpises us. When we think we understand Karenin and his jealousy, he confounds our expectations. Levin, with his scruples and cogitations, is a constant work-in-progress.

All of this is lost in a production which has the depth of a Christmas pantomime. Domhnall Gleeson is hopelessly mis-cast as Levin, being far too young and callow for this role, which was Tolstoy’s fictionalised self-portrait. With his fiancée, Kitty, the opposite applies, with Alicia Vikander being too worldly. Sally Ann Howe was only 18 when she played the part in Duvivier’s film, and her performance was luminous.

Jude Law tries hard, in the role of Karenin, but it is impossible to capture the many contradictions of this character when prancing around on a vaudeville stage, mouthing sentences that seem to have been extracted from the novel and reconfigured as a shopping list. After one of his big scenes with Anna, he leaves the bedroom and sits alone on a stage, conveniently located in the corridor of his house. I had the same bilious feeling that struck me in Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio, when everyone started looking at their wristwatches and jumped on motor scooters.

By now, every director must recognise that such deliberate attempts at disorientation appear foolish and pretentious rather than profound. It should have been obvious from the hysterical junk produced by Ken Russell and Lindsay Anderson, or from Fassbinder’s late experiments – although Genet’s Querelle leant itself to artificiality in a way that is (or was) inconceivable with Tolstoy.

Apparently Wright’s thinking was that the Russian aristocracy of the 19th century lived their lives as if on a stage. This insight led him to the brainless literalism of putting the entire film on a stage. Yet the whole thrust of the novel is to reveal the tragic conflicts between public and private life, the difficulty of reconciling individual desire and social conventions. Tolstoy refused to take the romantic path, like D.H.Lawrence, and make desire the only true good, grappling with the dictates of conscience in relation to society and religion. This is the whole point of the dual narrative that sets Anna’s decline against Levin’s gradual awakening.

In this new Anna Karenina such niceties are sacrificed to the remorseless logic of the video clip. The nature of a classic is that it may be rediscovered and reinvented for every new generation, but such adaptations tell us more about our own times, rather than providing any new insights into the book itself. Joe Wright seems to be suggesting we live in an age when, frightened of thinking and feeling too deeply, we take a casual delight in trashing the monuments of the past.

One wonders what Tolstoy would have made of West Memphis? By now, we have all sampled numerous cinematic examples of the hermetically sealed craziness of the American south-west, which bears more than a passing resemblance to medieval village life.

The story told by Amy J. Berg, in her documentary, West of Memphis, is yet another devastating saga of provincial injustice brought about by corruption, pig-headedness and sheer stupidity. It concerns the fate of three young men who became known as the West Memphis Three, following their conviction in 1996, for the murder of three small boys.

Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley were convicted by a jury who were persuaded they were members of a satanic cult. The clincher was a ‘confession’ by the mentally retarded Jessie, who was led to agree with whatever words the interrogators put into his mouth. As the ring-leader, Echols was sent to death row, while his friends received life imprisonment. An angry mob outside the courthouse bayed for blood.

Soon it began to appear there were serious flaws in this conviction. Alibis had been ignored, neighbours and family members had not been interviewed, the expert medical evidence was farcically incorrect. As it became obvious there had been a miscarriage of justice, the West Memphis Three became a cause celebre, attracting the attentions of rock stars such as Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith and Henry Rollins; and film people such as Johnny Depp and Peter Jackson.

Lori Davis became convinced the Three were innocent, and began corresponding with Damien Echols. They would be married while Echols still languished on death row, and Davis led the campaign for a new trial. In distant New Zealand, Peter Jackson watched an earlier documentary called Paradise Lost (1996) by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, and decided to do whatever he could to help out.

Jackson is co-producer of West of Memphis, and has been a major sponsor of the private investigation into the case carried out by the lawyers employed by Lori Davis. That investigation revealed a huge amount of new evidence that was not available to the makers of Paradise Lost, who have since produced two revised versions of the documentary, in 2000 and 2011.

The new investigation used DNA analysis and expert forensic investigators. It featured new witnesses, and old witnesses recanting their testimonies. It revealed, beyond reasonable doubt, the identity of the real murderer, and showed that Berlinger and Sinofsky had picked the wrong suspect. The problem was getting this evidence into an Arkansas court, where judges and prosecutors are subject to public election.

As this watertight case languishes for years we realise the root of the problem was that the need for a speedy conviction was more important than the guilt or innocence of any party. The West Memphis Three were scapegoats, used to further the political ambitions of those who dealt with their case. Nobody would risk losing face by admitting the incompetence of the investigation and the mistakes in the initial trial.

It is a perfect example of a system that is so flawed it allows justice to be dispensed on a whim, or a wild fantasy of satanism in the suburbs. It’s sobering to think how many convictions and executions have resulted from this version of justice, and how many lie ahead.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPGLRO3fZnQ

 

Anna Karenina, UK, rated M, 150 mins

West of Memphis, USA, rated MA 15+, 147 mins

 

Published by the Australian Financial Review, February 16, 2013