Tag Archives: Russia

Spies of Warsaw

Spies of WarsawBBC America aired this 2-part miniseries in April, though it aired in the UK in January.  The miniseries was based on a spy novel by Alan Furst, and takes place in Poland (obviously) and throughout central Europe in the late ’30s. David Tennant plays Colonel Mercier, a French aristocrat and spy. Janet Montgomery plays Anna Skarbek, an official with the League of Nations and Mercier’s love interest.

I can’t say I loved it, to be honest.  I think there are a number of reasons for this –some my own preferences and some general problems with the miniseries–and I’ll run down them briefly.

First, I’m not crazy about the subject matter.  Almost all thoughts of World War II make me so upset as to be nauseous. The only thing that terrifies me more than Nazi uniforms are Hitler Youth uniforms.  But this is my own personal preference, and doesn’t reflect on the quality of the series.

Second, the format left something to be desired.  This was two 2-hour episodes; 2 full movies in other words.  I think there could have been a lot more tension built around the characters’ fates if it was split into maybe 4 parts.  I wasn’t entertained enough by it to focus solely on it for two entire hours.  And this isn’t just my attention span that is the problem–each episode of Sherlock is 90 minutes long, and I’m riveted for most every second.  I couldn’t fathom picking up my iPhone and doing solitaire while watching that.  I spent good chunks of my viewing time for Spies of Warsaw playing a geography game on my phone.  Hey, anyone need to know where Guinea-Bissau is? Because I’m hoping that knowledge will bring me the big bucks in life.  The point is, it was too long and moved too slowly for 2 hour blocks at a time.

I think that the miniseries has something in common with Parade’s Endwhich was on HBO a few months ago.  Each dealt with the lead-up to war.  Each featured a smart, strong male lead convinced that war was coming.  Both protagonists struggled to make their compatriots understand the catastrophe Germany was about to unleash upon Europe.  Stylistically, both featured long (long for a modern film audience) shots of not much action, interspersed with more tense and action-filled scenes.  Each had good acting and good writing, and yet each suffered from the problem of not quite connecting emotionally with the audience.  And I’m not enough of a film student to comprehend what about each fails to really move me.  I liked Parade’s End a lot at times, but with Spies of Warsaw, I found it difficult to care much about what was happening.  I think my apathy came partially from not having a vulnerable or relate-able main character.  Mercier sees what his coworkers do not, he’s a great spy, he cares about people, he is too good and too capable.  It takes away from the tension of what might happen to him, because even in moments of distress and danger it seems impossible that he won’t come out of it just fine.

I will say that these two miniseries (plus Casablanca) have utterly convinced me that love affairs are really difficult in situations of World War.  Note to self.

David Tennant’s acting is great. I’ve seen him play serious before (Hamlet, for example) and he’s really good.  The female character, Anna, has almost no personality in it, so they didn’t give Janet Montgomery much to work with. In response to finding out her new boyfriend is a spy, she…doesn’t say anything, really.  I would have liked both characters to be far more flawed, unsure, stumbling along through ridiculous times.  It does an audience no good to think of anyone existing at that time as a paragon.

I remember watching a great but horribly violent movie, fittingly titled A History of Violence.  Viggo Mortenson plays some sort of ex-mafia criminal who starts a new life in a small town and is completely reformed.  When someone tries to rob his restaurant, instinct kicks in and Mortenson’s character kills the robbers in self-defense.  From that moment, his past starts to come back to haunt him. His wife (Maria Bello) finds out who and what he was, and she has an incredible reaction.  Vomiting, shouting, running out of the room, and then they have this crazy, scary, exciting sex scene.  It’s a real and varied and unnerving response to finding out your beloved is not who or what they said they were.  When I think about Anna Skarbek’s character, I don’t expect the same reaction, but it almost seemed like there wasn’t one.  She finds out her new beau is a spy and she….just kind of accepts it and moves on.  I suppose you could argue that everyone in the series is someone other than who they pretend to be.  After all, if you were inclined to disagree with Germany (or Russia, for that matter), you wouldn’t be inclined to advertise it.  Perhaps Anna is used to it, but I found it off-putting that she had such a monotonous emotional landscape.

To her credit, she does get properly angry with Mercier later when she thinks he ordered the French to turn her defector ex-boyfriend over to Stalin.

Confession: I am not a spy novel aficionado.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a spy novel. Maybe that’s part of the problem–I don’t speak the lingo.  On the other hand, I’ve seen Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and at least one other Bogart movie.  And I followed those just fine.  I think they were just better.  Also, I really liked Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which falls right in there with great spy films.   Spies of Warsaw has the music of a great spy film, and some of the quintessential visuals, but none of the tension.  And tension is everything.  Have you seen Strangers on a Train?  Hitchcock can make a tennis game the most tense and suspenseful thing in the world.  This was no Hitchcock, unfortunately.

They did a great job recreating a bleak and terrifying Central European landscape for this miniseries.  Security checks and random searches, the Poles sandwiched unhappily between the Gestapo on the west and the Russian NKVD (later, the KGB) on the east.  France being still (at this point) a relaxing place nicely separated from all the riff raff on the other side of the Black Forest.  Parties in Paris…but still a feeling of the doors closing in, for the Jews particularly.  The costuming, the set design, and the cinematography all made the world really believable.

I think the fault must lie in the pacing and the writing (two things that I imagine are closely intertwined when writing a movie/mini-series).  There’s not enough tension or enough direction in the plot.  It feels disconnected at times, and the ending is thoroughly confusing.  It tries to make you feel uplifted that they’ve escaped Poland (which is good, obviously) with a bunch of Polish gold to keep it from the Germans (also good).  But they’re headed to France, so the modern audience knows that this isn’t the end; this isn’t a happy ending, even though they almost literally walk off into the sunset.

Also, it is a bit confusing for an American audience to have two Brits with British accents playing a Frenchman and a Polish woman.  I kept forgetting Mercier was French.  Maybe this wouldn’t bother me if the actors were American, because I wouldn’t register their accents as something already foreign.  I doubt it bothered Brits.  Still, when you have David Tennant playing a French man with a British accent meeting an English aristocrat with an English accent, it’s difficult to remember they are supposed to be from different countries.  Others, like the Russian ex-boyfriend has a proper Russian accent.   Tennant explained the action choices in this Joycean quote:

There is actually an internal logic to the concept. Since the main character is French, but the audience is English-speaking, we hear him speak with a sort of a neutral English accent, and anyone else speaking English is actually speaking French, and the other nationalities speak English but with their natural accents, and the Germans speak German with English subtitles – which I suppose makes [the subtitles] French. I can see your eyes glazing over.

I think my brain just glazed over.  Sorry David, I love you and I don’t blame you, but this just wasn’t very good.

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.