Tag Archives: Anna

The Bletchley Circle (season 2)

91cMb90PWAL._SL1500_The 2nd season (series) of The Bletchley Circle ended a few weeks ago on PBS (it aired in January in the UK).  I really like this show, though I’m never catapulted out of the ‘like’ category into the ‘love it/need it’ category. I think that is because the ‘season’ is so short (3 episodes in season 1, 4 episodes in season 2), that I never have a chance to get really into it. Unfortunately, I won’t be seeing any more episodes, as the show has not been renewed for a 3rd series.

I remember talking in my last review about the importance of seeing strong and smart women, working together in a world (1950s Britain) that at best, underestimates them and at worst, subjects them to violence and abuse. The second season didn’t shirk away from that.

The season begins with a new character.  Alice.

HattieMorahanB_1Alice (apparently) worked at Bletchley, though not all of the season 1 girls knew her.  She has been accused of murdering a man, and has not put forth any defense, ergo she will be hanged. Jean is convinced that she is innocent, and asks the other girls to help her prove it.

Susan, after the danger she and her family were in during their last escapade, is reluctant to help.  It quickly becomes apparent that Alice is innocent, and also becomes apparent that Susan will be leaving the show and Alice will be brought on as the resident slightly-rude code genius. It’s hamfisted, but what can you do with 4 episodes? Seems like they could have kept Susan around for 2 more episodes, before sending her off somewhere.  This is the part that bothered me the most about the second series.

During these first two episodes, we see that Lucy is now working at Scotland Yard, and Millie is working as a German translator.  How strange it must have been to stop fighting the Germans and then almost immediately begin doing business with them again.  And only a decade or so later, the beginnings of the EU. Strange to think of. The wars I’ve lived through, from the US, have only been with countries that were a-geographically distant, b-with vastly less powerful armies than ours,  and c-of almost zero importance to our economy. (Western) Europe is so small compared to the US that it might be easier for me if I imagined the end of the civil war, and returning to normal trade and travel among the different states. Millie finds it odd herself, making such an about face. Working with people who had probably been Nazis.  And they had no idea, but she was one of the women who helped break their codes and interrupt their plans.  *Insert vague idiom about strange bedfellows*

The first two episodes revolve around saving Alice from the gallows, and uncovering a government experiment with chemical weapons, used on soldiers. Lovely. I vastly preferred the second two episodes, but they also made me uncomfortable and angry.

In episode 3, Millie is abducted from outside her apartment. She wakes up in a strange room, held captive. Millie has been using her connections and her skills to sell ‘black market’ goods that were hard to get during and after the war. In England, unlike the US, the ’50s were not a time of prosperity and consumer freedom. War rationing continued for nearly a decade after the end of the war. Millie seems to mostly sell perfumes and cigarettes, nothing dangerous or damaging. She works with a partner, Jasper.

2014-04-28-bletchley-27

Here’s the thing. Millie is my favorite character. She is the strongest, the bravest, and the most confident of all of them. She wears pants (get your pearls ready for clutching), she travels alone, she lives on her own, she holds her head up and walks with purpose. This in a time of our history and a place in the world where women were still very much expected to be quiet, modest, maternal, and submissive. If I had been alive at the time, I’m hoping I would have the strength to be like her. I’m saying this because I want to explain how a part of this episode really affected me.

Millie is taken in to see a woman, Marta, who was supplying Jasper (who was supplying Millie). Someone has stolen from Marta (spoiler, it was Jasper, because of course it was), and she’s going to take her proverbial pound of flesh from one of them.  Jasper claims he can repay the money, and is given a chance to do so. Millie manages to talk herself into freedom, proposing she works with Marta as she worked with Jasper. Essentially she wants to cut out the middleman.

Only Millie does not in any way want to work for Marta, because she has just discovered that in addition to cigarettes and perfume, Marta imports girls. Young girls from behind the iron curtain, who can be easily ‘sold’ to wealthy men in the UK. That’s so horrifying I can’t even comprehend it. It is literally beyond my ability to understand, much like the Higgs Boson. But I know it happens every day, even now. Probably much more so now, since people are easier to move in this century than the last.

So Millie manages to talk her way out of the bad situation, which is part of her gift.  Marta lets her go, and one of her goons drives Millie home. She asks him his name, and he shoves her against a wall and threatens to rape and hurt her.  This scene made me so angry; I took it almost personally.  It takes confidence to act like Millie does–that’s part of her protection from anyone who wants to hurt her. There’s a reason people tell women to project confidence, to keep from being mugged or attacked. If you walk through the world with confidence, in some ways you’re saying to potential predators that you have enough resources in this world that someone cannot hurt you without expecting retribution.  But this man is so sure that he can do whatever he wants, that he has no problem showing he can physically dominate her.  And she’s not a small woman–she’s 5’9″, she’s curvy (by Hollywood standards anyway!).

I’m writing this entry after a man, angry with women for rejecting him, went on a murder spree in California over the weekend. After posting videos and a manifesto about how much he hated women, and how much they deserved to die because they wouldn’t have sex with him. Women have responded on twitter, posting their own stories of misogyny, fear, assault, and general inhumane treatment. And everyone has stories.

I know I’m digressing wildly now, but just a brief (okay not so brief) word about the fact that very little has changed since the 1950s. Most women are in a position where they can be physically overpowered by men. That means most women have reasons to be afraid. No matter how confident you are, how strong or smart, your ability to walk around in the world could be shattered at any minute. You are able to be happy or sad or whatever you are, only until a man near you decides he wants to hurt you. I project confidence into the world, like Millie, and it keeps me free from most harassment.  But, just like Millie, it could all be taken away.  Which means I walk quickly, I stay aware, I keep my keys between my knuckles when I’m alone at night. I can only slightly comprehend how much worse it might be for women who don’t have the resources I do. I’m a white female, and am a pretty high-risk target because of that.  Women who are marginalized by society have even less power. Because they are women of color, or they are children, or they are intellectually or physically disabled, or in a country illegally, they are more likely to experience abuse (sexual or otherwise) than I am. And they are far less likely to receive help or justice from the police. That’s a universal, throughout the world.

The Bletchley Circle, for all the parts that seem unrealistic or hamfisted, is an important show because it does not pull away from these issues. When I compare it to Downton Abbey, and the way Anna’s rape was …fodder for dramatic tension and how Bates was more concerned with his own revenge than with his wife’s happiness… I know they are different shows, different time periods, and very different pathos. Downton Abbey used rape the way Coronation Street uses tragic and improbable deaths (and also probably rape, but I haven’t seen enough of it to know for sure). To titillate, to engage the empathy of the audience, without much reality thrown in.  The Bletchley Circle did not show rape.  But it showed the systematic, widespread, abuse of women. From the girls being smuggled in by Marta, to Millie’s abduction, to Jean’s being shot, to Lucy’s abusive husband. These are pretty lifelike portrayals of the treatment a lot of women get from men. And the women keep going, keep fighting and pushing for safety, for their rights. I don’t think The Bletchley Circle is a perfect show. But I think it’s important to continue to have shows like it–that focus on women, and that focus on the different types of women, and the problems they face that men may not understand. I’m not saying that if every show were like The Bletchley Circle, there would be no more rape or spousal abuse.  Obviously not a lot of rapists are probably watching it. But, I think if more shows acknowledge that these things happen (and how often they happen), then people who have been lucky enough not to see this firsthand, will at least not dismiss it as a non-issue. And maybe won’t see women speaking up about their own freedoms as an attack on men.

2013 Christmas Specials

Christmas is a pretty special time in the UK, I think.  I theorize.  I’ve never been there at Christmas time, but one glance at the decorations on Oxford or Regent Street tells you what it’s like in London.

90_05_15---Christmas-Lights--Regent-Street--London--England-_webI also haven’t participated in that age-old tradition of the Queen’s Christmas address.  But one tradition I am always happy to indulge is the tradition of the Christmas special.  During busy weeks, particularly in the holidays, TV here tends to come to a screeching halt.  Repeats for weeks on end.  The only exception is (American) football, which is on constantly from Thanksgiving to …February.  Blech.  I’ll pass on that.  But the Christmas special! Something everyone can gather around the TV and enjoy, that (usually) doesn’t involve padding or jock straps.  I can support that tradition whole-heartedly.

This Christmas was a big one for Doctor Who, with Matt Smith’s last episode and Peter Capaldi’s first.  They like to do these transitions on big episodes, don’t they?  And this one was a particularly unusual story.  We saw the Doctor bald, we saw him naked,

matt-smith-nude-the-time-of-the-doctor-band even more strangely, we saw him old.  Doctor’s aren’t supposed to age, are they?  During that stretch of episodes in America, we see the Doctor some 200 years older in one episode than when we see him next, and there isn’t the slightest change.  So exactly how much time did he spend in a town called Christmas, on a planet called Trenzalore, to get to looking like this:

Doctor-Who-11-2959359He looks and acts very Dickensian, which I find rather amusing. He’s always been very Victorian, number 11, with his waistcoats and bow ties and pocket watches.  Being rather fond of that era myself, I am sad to see that go.  I am genuinely sad to see Matt Smith go, which is a big credit to him, since I was weeping over David Tennant’s exit.

This episode was very grand and (is often the case with very grand episodes of the show) it often seemed more concentrated on being big and important, rather than making much sense.  I try to remember what exactly was going on, but I found myself thoroughly confused by a lot of the plot for this one.

The way I understood it, the Time Lords were communicating through the crack in the wall, which reappeared in Christmas.  Their message was heard by everyone, and it scared everyone.  They were asking the Doctor’s name…and if he told them, they would come through.  And this would, for some reason, cause immediate and total war?  The Church of the Mainframe protects the planet from the hordes of Daleks, Cybermen, and every other type of villain that is trying to get in.

I have so many questions from this episode. How are the Time Lords of Gallifrey able to send messages, and then (Deux Ex Machina)  time energy, through the rift when they are stored safely away in a frozen moment of time? How did a burst of time energy reset the clock on the Doctor’s regeneration count? And simultaneously give him power to kill Daleks with a light beam? Why does the regeneration process seem to happen really quickly sometimes (John Hurt’s Doctor to Chris Eccleston’s, Eccleston to Tennant) and sometimes (Tennant to Smith, Smith to Capaldi), it takes quite a while. Most importantly, what’s the point of using the Silence as priests?  Why would you want to confess and then forget you’d done so?  Much better to have a priest who forgets everything you’ve just told him.  And was the episode implying that the Silence were created to be priests?  Or that they were recruited as priests after they were more-or-less killed off on Earth?

I think this episode attempted to do too much, too big, without enough time or weight given to some of the big issues.  And the most important thing, the actual regeneration, took place so late in the episode, that we barely saw Peter Capaldi as the Doctor.  I like him already, I feel I can’t help but to like him.  But with a new Doctor, any new Doctor, he needs to win the audience over nearly immediately.  Now we’ve seen Peter Capaldi for approximately 40 seconds, and now we have to sit and wait until …whenever they decide to air the next series… before we get to really see him as the Doctor?  I don’t like it.  I wanted more, obviously, and I think it’s important to the audience to keep out any doubts over the new Doctor.  I was pretty disappointed to not see more of him, and that’s part of what makes me unhappy and unsettled about the episode as a whole.

And then there was Downton Abbey.

downton-abbey-christmas-special-2013

Another Christmas special that has utterly nothing to do with Christmas?  This time it’s the London Season, where debutantes are launched into society and try to land the richest possible husband. Mary is entertaining multiple suitors as usual, we learn that Bates probably did murder whats-his-name, and the Grantham family has to engage in some clumsy skullduggery to save the Prince of Wales from embarrassment over his affair.  Most importantly, Carson is barefoot in the ocean.  Mr. Carson is the last person I imagine to ever be barefoot. The poor man, I would gladly have gone on his outings. I liked the Science Museum and all the other ‘educational’ outings he suggested.

Rose drove me less crazy during this episode by far.  She’s still silly and a bit dim, but she acted like an adult at least.  Edith and Mary, on the other hand, drove me crazy. Mary is just as spoiled and selfish as she has ever been, and Edith is tedious and dull at best.  I never like indecision, particularly in TV characters. In a story, there’s no point in indecision.  It’s a waste of the audience’s time.  Edith waffling back and forth and being rude to others about a situation she’s created for herself is…just as annoying as I’ve come to expect from her character.  I miss Sybil!

Finally, we got to see Paul Giamatti as Cora’s brother, and I thought he did splendidly.  He always seems to play the same character–the grumpy but charming man who wins over far more attractive ladies.

downton-abbey-2013-christmas-special-shirley-maclaineNo exception here.  I know the ‘Americanness’ of these characters is heightened to the point where they may as well be from another galaxy, but I quite like them.  They get almost all of the minute social niceties completely wrong in every situation–futile introductions to the Prince of Wales, never understanding that they’re supposed to get their own tea or breakfast, not comprehending the practice of downstairs servants being called by the name of the person upstairs that they serve, etc., etc.  But no matter how many times they get it wrong, it doesn’t phase them.  And as an American, I think that’s pretty accurate.  While the Brits are disdainful of our loud voices and lack of manners, we are blissfully apathetic to doing these things the ‘wrong’ way.  Undoubtedly, Harold will tell all his amused friends in Newport about his conversation with the Prince, whereas any Brit who had made the same mistake would probably be mortified.  I know Downton takes place nearly 100 years ago, but I think these are social mores that still exist in each culture.  Brits still have fear of causing offense or inconvenience; Americans generally don’t know or don’t care when we’ve accidentally committed a minor faux pas.  The American in me genuinely likes Cora, her mother, and her brother, for being too independent to care about titles or propriety, and for caring far more about the actual value of a person or an action.  I hope Paul Giamatti is in more than just this one episode, because I like him and I think the Grantham family needs more people to come and ruffle their feathers.  They’ll never survive the changes coming their way if they are allowed to believe the world is going to stay the same.

Bates’ story was the only real menace in the episode.  Mary and Mrs. Hughes know that he probably killed Mr. Green, and they’re not certain if they ought to keep it a secret.  The more I think about Bates, the more I think he’s a villain.  No one can really blame him for wanting to kill Mr. Green.  But to act on it…and I have never been entirely convinced he didn’t kill his first wife.  He seems to be surrounded by characters so evil that no one could really blame him for wanting them dead, but the amount of death that seems to follow him is pretty ridiculous.  Anna seems to be doing much better, but this will tear her apart again, so he is hurting her more than almost anyone.  I don’t trust him or like him anymore, and he’s shown he’s quite capable of lying to cover up his actions.  He’s gotten rid of a lot of problems in his life by acting like a criminal.  It may be safe to say, at this point, that he just is one.  I’m ready for him to be done.

It’s a long time until Downton Abbey starts again, and I’m not certain this episode provided me with a really compelling reason to keep watching.  I enjoyed the 4th season, but there was no particular cliffhanger or massive event at the end of this episode that would make me hungry for more.  But I did like the little moment with Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson, because they’re both lovable and they deserve more fun.  That being said, it seems an odd place to leave your Christmas episode–on a sunny beach.

Downton Abbey, season Four

downton-abbey-season-4-cast-photo

Before I even begin to talk about this season, which just ended in the UK and premieres on PBS this January, I have to say that if you have not seen this season, do not read any further.  To say there are spoilers would be an understatement.  I do not want to ruin all the pain you’re going to experience, particularly at mid-season.

You have been warned! Past here there be dragons spoilers!

There’s one even that is of premiere importance in this season, but I’m going to start with some other thoughts that occurred to me as I watched this season.

1-This season, and this season alone, changed my mind about some of the male characters.  For one thing, Lord Grantham is a big ole pain in the ass. He got on my bad list in the very first episode. In a callback to season 1, once again Mary’s place as an heir to Downton is in doubt.  And, despite all that she’s been through, and her undeniable abilities, Lord Grantham doesn’t think she’s capable–or just does not want to share power with anyone.  I know this is the 1920s, and women had just gained suffrage in the UK and in the US.  But Julian Fellowes has portrayed Lord Grantham, not as a sexist, but as someone who just doesn’t want other people interfering in what he views as his own responsibilities.  And he tries to do it once again, planning to skip Mary as a partner in the estate and only turn over his ‘powers’ to her son when he comes of age.  I think I find it all the more insulting and annoying that he either can’t see or doesn’t care that Mary a-needs this and b-is completely capable of excelling at it. I found my affection for Mary growing by just as much as my dislike for Lord Grantham.

And Bates?  I’ve heard chatter before that he and Anna don’t belong together, because she is young and wonderful, and he is old and a killjoy. I never understood it before, because I quite liked their story.  But now, I totally get it.  In mid-season, before the …event… Anna was having a good time, having some fun! What did Bates do?  Sulk and be angry and not join in.  And what did Julian Fellowes do?  Punish Anna, obviously.  More on that later. But after the event? I felt some sympathy for Bates–he doesn’t know what’s wrong, he’s done nothing but his wife is just gone from him.  But when he finds out? Instead of doing what Anna needs (supporting her, helping her to move on), he focuses on what he needs: revenge.  And he gets it.  I suppose there are people who think he didn’t do it, but I’m not one of them.  I was never entirely certain he didn’t kill his wife, and now this?  We know he’s violent, we know he’s single-minded.  Anna, you deserve better.

2-The one character I disliked for the entire season was Rose.

Lilly-James-as-Lady-Rose-in-Downton-Abbey-set-to-star-as-CinderellaI get that they needed to inject some youth and optimism into the cast, because they killed off lovely, wonderful Sybil, and turned Mary into a widow.  Edith never was cheerful.  But didn’t Julian Fellowes learn anything from Cousin Oliver on the Brady Bunch? No one likes the new kid.  Rose is no Sybil. Rose is vapid and willfully naive, with the emotional maturity of a 13-year-old.  Sybil was kind and thoughtful, rebellious when she believed in something, but not rebellious for the sake of rebellion.  Rose only wants to shock; it’s a desperate cry for attention from her disinterested parents, and it is boring. Get rid of her.

To be fair, she didn’t annoy me too much at the beginning of the season.  But by the end I was rolling my eyes, and truly a bit disturbed by her desire to marry someone out of a combination of youthful infatuation and to anger her mother.

3-Can we talk about Mary’s suitors?  First, there’s Lord Gillingham

198200-lord-gillinghamHe didn’t seem too bad, at first.  I don’t think he’s a villain, at least.  But you can’t go from saying ‘Oh, Mary, I only want you’, then immediately become engaged to someone else, but still hang around frequently hoping Mary will change her mind.  That has me very suspicious. At best, he’s wishy-washy and lacks courage.  At worst, he cares very little for the feelings of either woman in question.

Then there’s Mr. Napier

-Evelyn_napierHis character is too bland and flimsy to ever have a remote chance with Mary, but unfortunately he doesn’t seem to know that. His chief function in this season (despite boring me to death) is to introduce his friend, Mr. Blake, to Mary.  Mr. Blake is the obvious choice for Mary’s next beau.  Of course, they claim to dislike each other passionately at first. Mr. Blake is very cynical about the upper classes, and thinks they don’t deserve their wealth.  Mary is (understandably) offended by this, and dislikes having him around.  Remember season 1, when Matthew and Mary got off on the wrong fit along similar topics?  Matthew’s middle class background, his insistence upon working, his reluctance to have a valet…it’s all echoed in Mr. Blake.  downton-abbey-series-4-charles-blake

And, like clockwork, the two begin to feel differently about one another.  Mary earns Blake’s respect when she proves that she is willing to change and adapt in order to keep Downton financially successful.  Her active role in the estate, along with Tom’s guidance, bring Downton into the 20th century (against Lord Grantham’s wishes).  It’s easy to see reasons why Blake and Mary will continue to be thrown together, and that’s who I’ve got my money on.

4-Edith.  I didn’t mind her this season!  I am really confused about why her beau just went missing at random, apparently as soon as he arrived in Germany!  Germany wasn’t a particularly good place to go at this time, I think, but I find it hard to believe he disappeared without a trace.  Edith kept mentioning that private detectives and the police were searching for him, but we never seemed to see any proof of that–correspondence with them, or with his office in London.  It was just sort of an undercurrent to the latter half of the show, without ever being brought to the forefront.  I found that very strange, and am very curious.  One assumes that he’ll turn up at Christmas, but then I expected him to turn up at the last episode of the series, so that proves my instincts are generally wrong.  Either way, her story line made me extremely grateful to live in a time with birth control.

Well, there’s nothing else to discuss except the big thing this season.  No deaths, no war, no Spanish flu or miscarriages.  But what Julian Fellowes did to Anna seems worse than all of them.  I (and a lot of people who watch the show) felt that it was like a slap in the face. So, let’s talk about why it does and does not make sense for rape to be a feature of this show.

For one thing, it absolutely did happen, and it was covered up.  When you have a society that prizes secrecy as fervently as the Victorians & Edwardians did, you are never going to even be able to estimate how prevalent a problem it was.  And when you have girls in positions of submission, as maids in houses owned by powerful men, they don’t feel capable of speaking out.  Even if the crime wasn’t perpetrated by one of the family, a maid would probably lose her position if she admitted what had happened. The family wouldn’t want any shame brought on them.  So…we can be sure it happened, and we can be sure it happened far more than we could ever prove.  The majority of the time, the perpetrators probably faced no consequences.  Is that an important topic to cover in a history of the period? Sure.

On the other side of the coin, this is not a nonfiction.  This is a primetime soap opera. In the past, it has shown no remorse in exploiting tragedy and death to garner ratings and accolades. But it’s also an idealized version of past reality.  Shows and their show-runners have a pact with their audience.  An agreement among the two parties.  The show-runners provide titillation and excitement, depression and happiness.  They are allowed to play with our emotions, because we like it.  We enjoy a cathartic cry over the deaths, and we smile at our television sets when the hero and heroine finally get together.  We get enjoyment for watching, but we are giving a bit of ourselves to the show, being vulnerable to whatever happens next.  The same pact exists between writers and readers.  As I said, we expect to be tossed and turned a certain amount; that’s what we want.  But it’s a delicate balance, and when the powers-that-be go too far, we feel hard done by, used and abused. I can’t adequately describe how furious I was when I read Atonement.

Julian Fellowes has done a good job, up to this season, creating a safe but believable world. A world where bad things do happen, but usually because of huge ineffable forces like war or disease.

And has Julian Fellowes broken our contract this season?  I think he has.  I feel cheaply thrown about with no real purpose or reason.  Other times, he has stretched believability to create a safe and acceptable version of actual history. The most obvious examples are the ways the family dealt with Thomas’ homosexuality, or the black bandleader, Jack.  We like watching Downton Abbey because the 1920s seem more polite, more elegant, less harsh and grating.  Undoubtedly they were, if you were a rich, white man.  In truth, very few people would have been accepting of gay people in their homes, or black Jazz musicians performing for them. It’s the sad and terrible truth of it.  We overlook it when Julian Fellowes fibs to us, because it makes it easier to enjoy the world he’s created for us.  But, as is often the case, a lie that placates us is twice as acceptable as a truth that hurts us.

He punished Anna, the best of the lot of them, and destroyed all her happiness.  And there is something truly disturbing about a man, with his own share of power, writing a rape scene for a young girl.  And then a real woman has to act out that horrible scene.  It’s almost like a mirror of the attack itself. It reminds me of tales of Alfred Hitchcock, who tortured some of his actresses (notably Tippi Hedron) with horrible scenes and multiple takes in the Birds, who wanted to tear her down and used his scripts and his direction to do it. I’m not saying Julian Fellowes is a vile pervy old man, but when I think about the scene in this light it is even more difficult to accept.

I wouldn’t blame anyone who felt this was too much to deal with from what has been a safe space.  In reality, though, if you kept watching past that episode, you’ll keep watching the rest of the season.  And on to the Christmas special! I think it would have been a better season without the rape, but it was still good enough that I kept tuning in and wanting to watch.

Movie Review: Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina movie poster

I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina a few years ago, mostly out of a feeling of obligation.  No English major should make it through university without reading one of the huge Russian novels.  This seemed more my speed than War and Peace or Crime and Punishment. I tried unsuccessfully to read The Idiot, but I did at least make it through AK.  Unfortunately, despite liking Tolstoy’s short stories, I did not enjoy the book.  It was just too hard to read, if I’m honest.  Too much work to keep the characters straight (names always end in -sky, -vich, or similar, and several characters have the same first name), and such a long book.  I remember one chapter that–this is not a joke–was just Vronsky balancing his checkbook.  I mean, it had deeper meaning, of course.  But who can stay awake through a whole chapter of a guy just sitting there thinking about money and about his life and doing absolutely nothing.  It was very hard to finish the book.

I thought I might really enjoy this film, though.  For one thing, the character name problem is totally solved in film form. There is no way one can confuse the dowdy (for the first time in his life) Jude Law as Karenin, and the young, mustachio’d Vronsky.  In the book, they are both named Alexei, and there are middle names they sometimes go by, and it’s all confusion.  In the movie, though, one is repugnant and the other…well…not attractive to me, but certainly more young and passionate.  I did glean far more meaning from the film than I ever had from the book.  When you’re bored and frustrated with a book, it’s very hard to follow the nuance.

The film borrows from others such as Chicago and The Artist, in that it is both a live-action movie and a depiction of a play.  I imagine this illustrates the idea of society life all being a performance, and of society people always being watched and on display.  Scenes in AK take place on and backstage, and they use this method to float through time and space and skip over large swaths of the action to hone in on pertinent scenes.  This is immensely helpful when you’re trying to adapt a book that is approximately 5 million pages long, into a movie that is a reasonable length.  I didn’t mind the surrealistic style that allows an office scene to transform into a restaurant scene by following the office clerks as they leave their desks and walk straight into the restaurant with waiters’ aprons under their suits–but it took a minute to figure out what was going on.  I think the movie hopes you’re really paying attention, and probably also hopes you’ve read the book.

The best thing about this film was the visual interest in each scene.  Not only did the changing locations (defying the laws of space and time) keep you interested and alert, but the sets and wardrobe were breathtaking.  It was a really beautiful film, and the whole thing had the air of those pompous Charlize Theron Dior commercials.  Very beautiful and untouchable and people walking around on marble floors in immaculate gowns that cost more than I make in a year.  That sort of thing.  Which works, because that is exactly the society the movie is depicting.  Unfathomably wealthy and focused on aesthetic pleasures. The movie did a great job at keeping visual interest and making each scene, whether an intimate moment between Anna and her son, or a big ballroom scene, really beautiful.  Here are a few stills to prove my point:

new-stills-anna-karenina-by-joe-wright-32058838-460-287 Still from Anna Karenina keira-knightley-anna-karenina anna-karenina-picture02

It was an incredible film to watch, visually.  And for anyone who enjoys Russian culture, Imperial European culture, or 19th-century costumes, it’s a must-see.

For those of you unfamiliar with the storyline, I will give it to you.  For those of you who actually don’t know how it ends, be warned that this will not be spoiler-free.  Since the book has been out for over 100 years I feel okay giving away the ending. Anna is married to a dull bureaucrat (Jude Law) who is a good person, but lacks all passion or romantic feeling.  He is also (in the book) about 10-15 years older than Anna.  They have a son together, who is around 10-ish.

Anna’s brother, Oblonsky, is caught cheating on his wife.  Anna visits to try to convince the wife not to divorce her brother. In the film, Oblonsky is played by Matthew Macfayden. While in Moscow, another group of characters is introduced to Anna and to the audience.  They include Oblonsky’s wife and her sister, Kitty, who is ‘out’ in society, and Levin, a land-owning aristocrat who is in love with Kitty.  He proposes to her, but she is making eyes with Count Vronsky.  Confused yet?  There’s no easy way to explain it…  Anna and Vronsky make eyes at a ball, and the attraction is strong and immediate.

The rest of the novel follows two stories.  One is that of Anna and Vronsky, and certainly this is the most prevalent and memorable of the two plotlines.  They’ve got forbidden love, sex, and tragedy on their side.  The other plotline is that of Levin, who attempts to get over Kitty and throws himself into the life of a day-laborer.  Levin is simultaneously a Christ figure (made very obvious in the movie during the foot washing scene) and a foreshadowing of the communist ideals that would sweep the country during the next 50 years.  In the end, he is perhaps the only character who ends up truly happy, when Kitty agrees to marry him.

Anna and Vronsky’s affair is made public when she becomes pregnant with his child. Anna is stuck. She loves Vronsky with all her heart.  Her husband, Karenin, won’t give her custody of their son in a divorce. Anna refuses to leave her little boy. She is forced to live a life where society will not recognize her, she is openly mocked and judged as a fallen woman. She becomes more and more unstable, unable to live a good life with either man.  Vronsky begins to fall out of love with her, naturally, since she’s gone quite crazy and is taking morphine to dull the pain. The thing I remember most about the book is how ridiculously in love she is with her son, how much he means to her and how she will not leave him–meanwhile her daughter with Vronsky is barely mentioned.  In the end, Anna throws herself under a train in perhaps the most dramatic literary suicide ever.

The film manages to get all this across pretty well, except that it skates over some of the legal and monetary issues and the reasons why Vronsky begins to fade away from her.  The film seemed to be trying to bill itself as a great romance, especially in the marketing but also in its editing choices.  It focused on the story as a love story.  I don’t think that’s what it is.  People who think this story is romantic must be those same idiots that think Romeo and Juliet is romantic.

Consider the scene with the horse race. Vronsky is admiring his brand new horse (after declaring his love for his previous horse a few scenes back) which will lead him to victory in the race.  Going around the track, he beats and whips the horse to spur it on.  The horse falls (I had my eyes closed at this point, so I don’t remember why) and breaks its back.  Vronsky is thrown off, but stands up and tries to beat and pull the horse to its feet.  The horse is broken and in pain, but he considers it an insult that he was thrown and embarrassed.  He shoots the horse–hopefully out of mercy, but it seemed to be more from anger than empathy.  Then again, my eyes were closed so I may be wrong.

This scene is very clearly a metaphor for Vronsky and women.  Kitty is the first horse, thrown away when a better model comes into view. Anna is the second horse, abused and beaten until she breaks, then cast off without much regret.  Vronsky cares only about himself.

And is Anna a good person? Most assuredly not.  Even if one doesn’t consider adultery a terrible sin (it’s certainly not nice, but I don’t think of it as a sin the way they did back then), she is neurotic, selfish, obsessive, and cares very little for anyone other than herself or her son.  She steals Kitty’s admirer away from her, cheats on her husband, favors her son over her daughter unashamedly, and then commits suicide to avoid the consequences of her actions.  There is nothing heroic or good about her.  There is something very real about her, from her self-loathing to her lack of control for her emotions, but nothing heroic.

My boyfriend claims he spent most of the film feeling sorry for Karenin (Jude Law).  I do think the movie made Karenin far more sympathetic than he was in the book.  He does allow Anna to see Vronsky when he thinks she is dying after childbirth.  He allows them to run off together, to be together.  In the book, he does these things, but… There is a much longer period of time that he forces Anna to stay in the marriage and pretend the affair didn’t happen. She wants nothing more than to get out of the marriage, but he is committed to keeping up appearances.  He is using morality to keep them both imprisoned in the relationship.  And when they do split, he is determined not to let her anywhere near their son.  He makes her feel unfit to be a mother, won’t even let her give him a birthday gift or see him ever again.  Cuts her off completely from the thing she loves the most (even more than Vronsky).  All because she had the gall to not be content with a loveless, passionless existence when confronted with an alternative to it.

I could ramble endlessly about this book, but I’ll stop myself.  Back to the movie!  It made the Levin plotline less important and the Anna plotline more glamorous.  Other than that, it stuck to the book fairly well.

The acting was superb from all quarters.  I’m not a great fan of Keira Knightley, but she is good in this, and it seems a role that works for her.  Matthew Macfayden was great, and it was interesting to see Jude Law play someone unattractive.

Jude Law as KareninHe did an interview recently where he talked about how he’s grown old enough to play someone other than the romantic lead, that he can now play less attractive men.  I had no idea what he was talking about, because he’s still Jude Law, but now that I’ve seen this movie I know this was what he was talking about.  And he is good in it. Subtle, quiet, maddening.  Not at all your typical Jude Law role.

My only real complaint with the film is that it is a little heavy-handed.  There is a real sense of trying to make it seem as if the train imagery is following Anna through the entire movie.  It is her destiny, I guess, so we see the train imagery not only in scenes where she is on a train, but also with toy trains, or her just dreaming about trains or train tracks.  If you didn’t know the plot, you might wonder wtf is up with all the train stuff?  I think they could have been more subtle.  In the book, it is clear that she is doomed from the beginning, and the train scenes are all very potent because of that.  But not every scene has her dreaming of train tracks. It was just too much.  A few nods to the train would have been very effective, but the constant appearances of train imagery just takes away from what should be a build-up to an inevitably tragic end.