Anna Karenina: Theatre as faerieland

Last year’s Anna Karenina is one of the most interesting and confounding genre pieces I’ve ever seen.  In part because it inhabits its genre spaces both more literally than many of its peers and from a greater distance.

At its most obvious, it’s a historical costume drama.  But because its setting is a world effectively built from the remains of an old theatre, it is also literally a costume drama not just for the external audience, but for the internal players. But it does not actually take place in a theatre. It’s not a stage show; there are no stage hands. Rather, the walkways meant to hold lights become train tracks. The pulleys and weights that operate the curtain form the brocade walls of a country home. A garden grows in the orchestra. And when Anna goes to the theatre the theatre returns to mimic its original purpose. 

Of course, this theatre device, along with the film’s gorgeous heightened use of movement and less successful use of rather stylized acting (not all the cast is as equally up to the task), is meant to highlight what ultimately destroys Anna — the world of appearances and those who feel beholden for it.

But somehow it is also these choices that transform Anna Karenina into a fantasy.  I felt as if I was watching faeries act out a cruel parody of the lost human world, and half my brain spent the entire film wondering how this had come to pass.  A week later, I’m still haunted by these creatures for whom the bend of a wrist, a turn of the head, the color of a dress, is a language of a world that would never be translated for me.  This otherness reminds us that as transferable as Anna story seems it occurs in a world we as viewers do not entirely know, whether that is Russia, the aristocracy, or, in this case, a faerie kingdom.

While the film is not entirely successful and somewhat unpleasant to endure for both the tragedy and cruelty that female sexuality engenders in its story, it’s incredibly compelling, and worth hunting down, especially if you can see it on the big screen before it goes away. Among other things, it makes a fascinating companion piece to Les Miserables, by introducing theatre where it was not previously present, as opposed to the withdrawal of theatre that the naturalization of the musical into film in provides.


2 thoughts on “Anna Karenina: Theatre as faerieland”

  1. I was wondering what you thought about the Johnathan Coulton thing. I think there’s a rich topic or meta-topic to be had about dealing with the unsavory, contradictory aspects of art one likes when it is behind the scenes. I think any progressive fan of any show on Fox has to negotiate this because of what else Murdoch’s empire does, but what does one do when it gets more specific?

    1. I’ll be blunt and tell you I dislike being told what I have to do in a comment to a post that’s not even on the show in question.

      My opinion of the Coulton thing is that Glee seems to have been legally in the right, which is reflective of how poorly our copyright laws are set up to handle transformative work (I’m choosing to view a cover as transformative work here, because I don’t know what else to call it), and ethically in the wrong. Had they acted ethically, that probably would have opened them up to legal risk that Fox’s legal department would not abide, so I’m not really surprised this has shaken out this way. This is also not the first instance of something like this on Glee (there’s a notable one about the “Let’s Have a Kiki” choreography as well, and there have been other song issues as well in the past).

      I, for one, had never heard of Coulton until this went down, I have now, and that’s to the good. I’m glad he’s at least getting exposure (which is not, actually, recompense in this sort of scenario) out of a mess of a situation that’s much larger than this song or, in fact, Glee and Fox.

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