2010s, British cinema, Drama

Anna Karenina (2012)

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Director: Joe Wright

By Roderick Heath

Joe Wright’s fifth feature film, adapting Leo Tolstoy’s feted 1876 tome, seems on the face of it like a retreat to the safe ground of the period, prestige-laden works with which Wright first made his name: Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007). Wright’s smart, stylish revival-cum-critique of the globe-trotting action movie, Hanna (2011), was a departure for the director, and stood tall as one of last year’s best films, even if it didn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts. It proves to have been only a warm-up for this extravagant rendition of Tolstoy’s panoramic tale of adultery and social hypocrisy. Financial difficulties meant that Wright had to reconceive his intended adaptation, penned by no less a personage than Tom Stoppard, and hit upon the idea of rendering it as a variety of theatrical melodrama. The result is a teeming pageant of artifice, and heightened, almost dreamlike beauty that throws into relief the always powerful, often raw and disturbing emotions experienced and expressed by its characters.

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Tolstoy pushed the 19th century realist novel to its utmost limits of scope and inquiry whilst managing to maintain a grip on essential dramatic intimacy. The canvas of the average mainstream film is far more limited than what Tolstoy offered in creating around the centrifuge of Anna’s romantic tragedy an ontological portrait of his society in all its grandeur, contradiction, and pathos. This limitation is, ironically, one of the best arguments for rejecting Tolstoy’s measured, sprawling realism in film and adopting a style that can evoke the same meaning through cinematic means. Moreover, Tolstoy’s novel has been adapted many times, most famously with Greta Garbo in 1935 and a much-admired Russian version from 1967 by Aleksandr Zarkhi, thus raising the stakes for the worth of another version, whilst clearing room for radical interpretation.

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Wright’s chosen approach is clearly patterned after Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1945), beginning amidst overtly theatrical settings that gradually give way to stylised reality and then general verisimilitude, and back again. There’s a certain similarity, also, to the porous boundaries of life and performance found in the films of Carlos Saura, where the performance consciously strives to recreate human drama and, in turn, bleeds over into “real life.” Whereas Olivier and Saura were paying heed of the theatrical origins of their material and turning the audience’s awareness of the artifice into an aspect of their cinema’s texture, an adaptation of a novel has no such original strictures or preordained conventions. On this level, the choice is less immediately apt, except that this setting invokes the closest thing there was to cinema at the time of the novel’s publication. For Stoppard, the author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, this sort of thing is hardly new, and Wright avoids any obvious meta-narrative structures, a la The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), another probable influence, about the nature of the performance.

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Wright’s choices reorganise the predictable rhythms of the period literary film with boldness, vivacity, and a narrative that drives like an unstoppable machine. That’s very much the point, as the first third of the film turns stage machinery into a visualisation of the governing laws and dancelike niceties of a society that is narcotising in its materialism and formalism and alienated from itself. Anna (Keira Knightley), a wife and mother who is still young and something of a case of arrested development, is swept up in a passion that manifests as an elemental imperative, a natural law made manifest by Wright’s intricate staging that transforms the erotic passion overtaking its heroine as a fatefully choreographed tötentanz.

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The early scenes of Anna Karenina, then, are a whirl of stylised spectacle, as Wright’s camera roars around the interior of a huge stage, observing as cast and crew “create” the world of period Russia, stripping down and erecting sets for changes of scene, with actors shifting from squared-off illustrative postures to naturalism. The very first shot is of Prince “Stiva” Oblonsky (the ever-splendid Matthew Macfadyen) framed on stage in a barber’s chair awaiting his shave, the barber marching in and swinging his towel like a matador’s cape before proceeding to circle the prone Oblonsky, sharpening his blade. The suggestion of violence, with Oblonsky as a bull perhaps about to be skewered by his servant, reverberates throughout the film, where a promise of death lurks, of course, but also with one eye fixed on the future, still far off and yet dreadful and unavoidable, when the society it portrays will collapse. The opening’s tone is set, however, by a series of swift, overtly theatrical tableaux, true to the droll mood of the novel’s beginning, as the fatuous, cheerfully licentious, but sufficiently respectable Oblonsky has his domestic bliss ruined when his wife “Dolly” (Kelly Macdonald) discovers his affair with their children’s French governess (Marine Battier). In a fillip of Dickensian humour, Wright’s dancing camera glides across the theatre floor transformed into a room full of bureaucratic factotums, labouring in synchronised rubber stamping, and Oblonsky, master of what he surveys, marches amongst them. The bureaucrats then rise from their chairs and change uniforms on stage, or flee to the corners, and the ministry becomes a restaurant where Oblonsky lunches with his old friend Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson).

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The teeming variety of human action in these scenes borders on the frantic, as the extras rush to change roles and erect new settings, but is also intricately choreographed, all moving with purpose and design, movement and labour tellingly contrived to support the illusion of opulence, ease, and natural motion for the governing class. As such it serves as a portrait of this communal existence, its structure, pretences, and underlying laws, far more concisely and intelligently than any number of exterior shots of passing carriages would have in a more familiar adaptation. Oblonsky begs the intercession of his sister Anna to convince Dolly to forgive him, though Oblonsky has no actual intention of restraining his extramarital appetites. Anna bids farewell to her husband, Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) and son Seryozha (Oskar McNamara) in Moscow, and, arriving in St. Petersburg, succeeds in convincing Dolly to reconcile with her husband.

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Levin, a landed idealist and fretful, unconfident intellectual, has set his own heart on marrying Dolly’s younger sister “Kitty” Shcherbatskaya (Alicia Vikander), and meets with Oblonsky to discuss it. Oblonsky warns him that he has a rival to his affections in the form of one Count Vronsky. “Oh, you don’t need to worry about him,” Oblonsky assures his pal dismissively, “He’s just a rich, good-looking cavalry officer with nothing better to do than make love to pretty women.” Kitty is vivacious but naïve, and she turns down Levin’s proposal in the hope of getting one from Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). But her suitor, whilst meeting his mother Countess Vronsky (Olivia Williams) on the train from St. Petersburg, catches sight of Anna, who has been conversing with the Countess during their journey, and is instantly drawn to her.

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Tolstoy’s name itself has long been a byword for artistic enterprise that engages with the macrocosmic as well as the immediate drama. The brilliance of Wright’s conceit is steadily revealed throughout these sequences he uses for holistic realisation of theme. The “theatre” serves a multiplicity of settings and functions: whereas its aptness for evoking artificiality is passing trite, the cleverness here lies in the dialogue of settings, as, in the bustle and closeness of the “backstage,” realism, even authenticity, is located. Its ropes and catwalks and narrow stairwells offer a cunning simulacrum of the labouring grit and functional claustrophobia of the urban world in this period in Russia; it is the street, the market, the hovel, the factory, the hiding place, the feminine retreat. The gilded world erected on the stage and in the auditorium is a constant interplay of spectator and drama, social form and personal viewpoint, barriers ruptured most effectively and dramatically in the film’s central set-piece. Levin’s ill-fated proposal to Kitty sees him approach the girl who, situated upon the “stage,” is glimpsed lounging amidst painted swirling clouds, actualising his perception of her as a creature from a higher realm, one who tantalises and delights Levin’s fervently romantic heart even as he acts the solemn, sober intellectual. The clouds part, and Kitty descends to the stage level as part of a soiree. After his proposal is rejected, Levin climbs up the backstage fly space, which becomes the other, unromantic world, a slum, where he finds radical brother, Nikolai (David Wilmot) dissipating in a haze of fever and vodka.

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The floor of the auditorium then becomes the railway station for the fateful meeting of Anna and Vronsky, a setting at once stylised and animated, replete with vividly visualised binaries: beautiful, white snow that crusts the thundering black locomotives, the whirling, colour-drenched crowds and the Morlock-like rail engineer whose appearance before Anna, covered in soot, perturbs her like a bad omen. When she lets Vronsky kiss her hand, it seems to shake the entire train—actually the portent of a dreadful accident, as the worker is glimpsed having been cut in half after being knocked under the wheels by the train’s sudden jolt. This moment is both an apt quote from Doctor Zhivago (1965), where the first physical contact of Zhivago and Lara was announced by a cutaway to the sparking coupling of a suburban tram: Wright cuts to sparking wheels and shuddering steel redolent of a more fervently sexual connection, and also a portent of bleaker tidings of Anna’s own predestined end. Vronsky is charmed by Anna’s concern for the engineer’s dependents, and in his own showy desire to charm her casually hands over a great wad of cash to rail staff to be given to the dead man’s family. This is a pungent moment where Wright’s feel for the underlying fiscal realities of this society are revealed as mixed inextricably with the vagaries of individual natures and brute reality, and the beginnings of a process of systemic rot.

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The subsequent ball sequence cranks steadily into an erotic and emotional crescendo: Wright repeats one of his signature conceits from Pride and Prejudice in a shot in which Anna and Vronsky, dancing, are suddenly, dramatically isolated from the cotillion, hovering in bright light that excises them from reality. The sequence continues with an increasingly frenetic series of whip-pans and drunken camera whorls, evoking the great waltz sequence of Vincente Minnelli’s Madame Bovary (1949) in sustaining the sensual force of both the dance and the emotions enacted. Whereas in Atonement Dario Marianelli’s scoring provided the film with an unnerving aural analogue for the reality-ordering drive of its antiheroine, here it approximates her overheated psyche and palpitating flesh. The dancers’ serpentine arms weaving around each other with increasing suggestiveness, and Kitty becomes increasingly distraught as she watches from the sidelines, Anna and Vronsky’s instant ardour in dancing every dance together is all too obvious for both her and other onlookers.

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Only after this sequence does this hermetic vision of period Russian society begin to break open. Wright’s theatricality expands to absorb Golden Age Hollywood’s mythical stylisation, with model trains standing in for the real things, and an ebulliently beautiful moment that seems torn from the most classically styled expressionist melodrama. Vronsky emerges from a haze when the train taking Anna back to Moscow is paused on a siding, snow piled, seething smoke and saturated light and colour, like the very ghost of Anna’s repressed desire. Taylor-Johnson’s Vronsky, every inch the dashing gallant with blue eyes unwavering in every shot, dressed in uniforms so crisp and clean he could have been carved from a solid hunk of ice, has an eerie, otherworldly beauty, seeming at first to be an incubus born and bred specifically to locate the fault-lines in bourgeois propriety and strike hard at them, a male bimbo seducer without depth or character. Yet he’s actually as high-flown a romantic as Anna, obeying the natural simplicity of his ardour for her with fixated intent, even as his strong-natured mother tries to offer up alternative partners and dissuade her son from a course of action that will harm her son’s prospects.

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Importantly, Stoppard and Wright preserve Tolstoy’s oft-denuded contrapuntal narrative, where Anna’s experiences are contrasted with those of a classic Tolstoyan seeker-hero, Levin, who searches for personal stability and happiness, whilst also trying to shake off what he sees as the ills of his society, including a self-loathing engendered by its Westernisation and the evils of its traditional hierarchies. Levin’s viewpoint offers a substantive diegetic channel for Wright and Stoppard’s inquiring, ironic approach—Wright based the film’s style especially in the tension between the Western affectation of the period’s Russian society—and offsets the raw, biological level for which romantic love manifests for Anna, who is plunged into a tragedy that plays out specifically because of social constructs which the characters themselves try to work around, but fail. The early shot of the barber sharpening his razor gives way to a scythe being sharpened, as Levin joins his peasants on his estate in reaping wheat. They’re frightened and confused by his labours, however, especially as, since their emancipation, they’ve lost the life security they used to prize, whilst Levin is beset by constant contradiction in his attempts to live by reason, which often dictates acting against his instincts, manifest most particularly in his love for Kitty. After being spurned by her he toys with the idea of marrying a peasant woman, and keeps swapping charged glances with one of his workers. Levin’s relationship with his more overtly radical brother informs, and haunts, his choices, as Nikolai, dying slowly of consumption, has married Masha (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a prostitute he plucked from a whorehouse to prove his radical cred, though he treats her as basic chattel.

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It is Levin who, notably, ruptures the film’s ravishing, yet stifling interior mise-en-scène when he first returns to his estate, the doors behind the stage parting and allowing him to step into snow-crusted fields. This visualises a clear schism between artificial city and natural landscapes, and sets up the dialectic that reverberates throughout. Later, Wright again refines an earlier piece of his own filmmaking, coinciding beautifully with a moment from Tolstoy’s writing: Levin is stricken by an epiphany when, having slept atop a haystack, he awakens in the dawn-light-drenched mist and sees Kitty driving by in a carriage, a gloriously visualised moment that evokes the romanticism of Pride and Prejudice’s similar dawn-light climax, but with an added spiritual aura and impact.

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Levin is ripped out of the ambient earthiness of his setting and announces not only his still-compelling love, but also his awakened self-knowledge and his surrender to forces larger than his reason, a surrender he doesn’t acknowledge entirely until the concluding scenes. His second proposal to Kitty, who, chastened and matured in her spurning by Vronsky, accepts the less glamorous but more substantial suitor, sees the duo avoid verbalising their feelings by spelling them with children’s letter-blocks. Vikander’s performance is particularly good in suggesting Kitty’s emotional authenticity and worthiness even when she makes childish mistakes, and the smartness of Levin’s choice becomes apparent when he takes her to his estate. They find his brother and his wife are there, with Nikolai dreadfully ill. Levin moves to obey the niceties of societal presumption to eject Nikolai’s woman, but Kitty instead sets about helping her nurse Nikolai, a triumph of humanist instinct that proves Kitty might actually be her husband’s moral superior as an embodiment of empathy.

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The time Wright spares for this aspect of the story is indicative of the underlying attentiveness of this adaptation to the thematic breadth and heft of the tale, rather than reducing it purely to a tale of adulterous passion and social crucifixion: the possibility of a different kind of union is evoked and sustained. Nonetheless, Anna’s story proceeds with merciless force and clarity. Visions of her and Vronsky, both swathed in white and glowing in the sun on a picnic cloth, give way to the trap of space that Anna’s homelife becomes, mirrors and glasses turning faces upon themselves and conflating individuals into functions of one another, as when Vronsky and Karenin catch sight of each other in the mansion’s double doors. There passion gives way to domestic pretence—there’s a ruthlessly funny shot of Karenin neatly plucking a Victorian condom from a silver case on his desk before retiring to bed with his wife. Karenin, played superbly by Law, swings between poles of powerful emotion, from self-pity to vengeful fury to chastised forgiveness, but finally settling into a default mode of acquiescence to socially demanded wrong-doing. His sister Lydia (Emily Watson) talks him into banning Anna from coming to visit their son on his birthday, an injunction Anna ignores; Karenin guiltily watches from the sidelines, looking as if Anna’s angry glare burns a hole right through his self-respect. The film’s major set-piece and pivotal sequence, which sees the private become public and truths forcibly acknowledged, is a horse race in which Karenin observes Anna with chilly suspicion; Anna, in turn, spies on him in with a purse mirror, and drama unfolds on “stage” as Vronsky tries to win the race.

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The audiovisual impact of this scene, with the horses thundering out of the darkness from off stage, is tremendous, and so, too, is the vividness of the shattering of the fourth wall as Vronsky’s mount falls and he crashes with it into the “audience,” wrenching Anna into an unfettered moment of hysterical concern that, like Barry Lyndon’s eruption of anger in Stanley Kubrick’s great film, leaves her fatefully exposed to forces that are inimical to individual definitions of happiness. The physical beauty Wright and DP Seamus McGarvey bestow on this film, and the gaudy, highly unreal spectacle in its most florid passages, is ravishing, even hypnotic in its lushness. The major objet d’art is Knightley herself, who perhaps represents the most lustrously fetishized screen presence since Marlene Dietrich, a possibly deliberate evocation.

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The costuming, providing eye candy par excellence, is also intricately employed as another dramatic device. Vronsky’s chill blue uniforms cut through the earthier tones surrounding him with the keenness of a straight razor. Anna’s veils, at first flatteringly thin, become thicker as she seeks to hide her face from the world, and yet they resemble cracks in a broken mirror, declaring the turmoil behind the perfect face they obscure. A deeper template revealed as the film continues is the ironic romanticism and orchestrated sedition of Luchino Visconti, especially Senso (1953), where every frame is drenched with physical lustre and yet eaten away at by the alternation of powerful, often ugly, but always authentic emotions that rupture that always-present fourth wall of social expectation. And hanging over the production as a whole is the spirit of Ken Russell, the doyen of radical Brit directors, an influence particularly apparent at a soiree where Anna and Vronsky’s affair is finally, properly sparked amidst the dazzle of fireworks and Kabuki-like posturing. I draw attention to these influences not to brand Wright as a filcher but in noting the depth of awareness of cinematic models evident here.

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Wright constantly offers a tension between the immobilising spectacle and frantic movement redolent of hysterical energy, and, like the movie, Anna is defined by her constant, extremely neurotic movement; her triumphant moment is, paradoxically, the one where she’s practically paralysed by fever, a crisis that sees her able to achieve an almost saintlike scene of mutual forgiveness and rapprochement between herself and her two men, conquering Karenin’s righteous fury. There’s a touch of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in Knightley and Law’s early scenes together as she charms her pasty overlord with her still-girlish mannerisms, mannerisms that fade and give way to leonine ferocity as she enters her affair. The filmmakers and Knightley allow constant glimpses of Anna’s vanity, mental instability, and faintly sado-masochistic impulses, side by side with her admirable qualities, making her a different order of character to the usual run of blankly admirable females bound to be tortured in such period fare, several of which Knightley has played before. Knightley, more restrained than in her full-blown neurotic mode in A Dangerous Method (2011), maps out Anna’s journey as one of compulsions, until she’s finally beset by a cringing disgust and reactive grief in the face of social disgrace and the probability of being exiled from both her home with Karenin and the temporary bliss she has with Vronsky.

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The wonder of this Anna Karenina is the precision with which it captures and depicts the inner turmoil of Tolstoy’s characters, and the skill with which it finally removes, rather than adds, elements until, finally, emotional immediacy inverts the focus and the artifice retreats into the background. The film’s most striking moments are those where effect and matter are entwined, like the horse race, and when Karenin, tearing up a letter from his wife, hurls the pieces in the air, and they fall upon him and transform into snow, and his beset solitude in the midst of a fake city is rendered inescapably beautiful and sad. Karenin’s pathos is especially sharp, Law questioning “What did I do to deserve this?” as he sits before the darkened “theatre,” perfectly visualising his punch-drunk bewilderment and the gruesome sensation of being at once hollowed out by emotional shock and left exposed. Anna’s social crucifixion, an outing to the theatre that sees her confronted by her own most lethal anxieties, including watching Vronsky converse with Princess Sorokina (Cara Delevingne), the “child” his mother is trying to foist on him, and being loudly denounced by a society dame (Shirley Henderson) after her leering husband loans Anna a programme, results in Anna’s speedy spiral into a psychic collapse. This is momentarily assuaged, ironically, by Dolly, who cheerfully states to Anna she wishes she had the guts to follow in her footsteps.

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By this time, the stage surroundings have faded to a near-general realism. But Anna’s fracturing psyche and perception of herself and others, communicated by images fragmenting in mirrors and the sight of Anna stripped down to her support garments, reveal Anna’s very person is the stage, stripped back to the frame to reveal the ludicrous assemblage required to sustain the illusion of polite femininity. Anna’s suicide, a breathtaking sequence, takes place backstage, where onlookers are locked in friezes, reduced to props in Anna’s aching loneliness and despair, rescued by the prospect of a pummelling juggernaut, a force that both saves her from and mimics the forces that have already run over her, and a bliss of extinction. Wright nods again to Lean’s Brief Encounter, zooming in to the exultant fear on Knightley’s face as the lights of the train carriages whip across her visage; unlike Celia Johnson, she takes the plunge. The final images of the film, with Karenin seated in a verdant field as his son with Anna and her daughter with Vronsky play together whilst Karenin himself seems to have found peace in paternal solitude watching over the children, resolves with a sense of natural grace and maturity. The stalks of grass invade the “theatre,” presaging the breakdown of the order depicted in the film. Anna Karenina is an orgy of cinema, undoubtedly likely to be too rich for the blood of some, and yet it offers an experience far too rare in this year’s cinematic output—a film both boldly conceived and successfully realised on many levels.

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1950s, 2000s, Romance

Brief Encounter (1945) / (500) Days of Summer (2009)

Directors: David Lean ; Marc Webb

By Roderick Heath

Thanks to my occasional habit of shoving DVDs into the player almost at random while vaguely following the whims of my interests, every now and then I finish up watching movies that seem to comment on each other. I had just such an experience when I viewed within a few hours of each another a stone-cold classic of romantic cinema and a much more recent success that pointedly declares itself to be “not a love story.” Brief Encounter and (500) Days of Summer set my mind to working about how both human mores and cinematic styles had altered in the 65 years that separate the two films.

Brief Encounter has become iconic not only as a brilliantly orchestrated piece of dramaturgy and cinema, but also as a depiction of emotional stoicism of a brand that is more than passé to many today—it’s downright alien. Joe Wright showed Brief Encounter to the cast of Atonement to school them in undemonstrative styles of anguish. Of course, such frames of reference are reductive, and Brief Encounter isn’t quite so stiff-upper-lip as it’s often portrayed, though it’s hard to doubt it does describe with some authenticity the psyche of the WWII era, when individual passions were continually, forcibly channelled into greater issues and overwhelming responsibilities. By contrast, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the hero of (500) Days of Summer, who makes an auto-da-fé out of disappointment and romantic frustration, is encouraged by his boss Vance (Clark Gregg) to channel his moping into composing messages of condolence for greeting cards.

The chief similarity of Brief Encounter and (500) Days is that they are about romances that end badly and in such a way as to reflects contemporaneous principles. The adulterous flirtation of Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), and the determinedly ill-defined whatever between Tom and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) leave each pair battered, humiliated, and near-suicidal. The differences are, of course, manifold: Laura is married, bordering on middle-age, with two children and an agreeable homebody of a husband (Cyril Raymond); her partner in short-lived passion, Alec, likewise is married to a “small, dark, delicate” woman. Tom is still fairly young, an architect by training who’s been hiding out for some reason working for the greeting card company where Summer comes to work as Vance’s personal assistant. Summer’s quirky, lovable, into The Smiths, possessing an inexplicable admiration for Ringo Starr, prone to retro fashions, and altogether exquisitely designed to plug into the fantasies of every pining pseudo-hip male aged 16-42 in the audience. Casting Deschanel, hot indie-quirk girl über alles, merely cements the impression. Her scenes with Tom, of finding romance through playful skips about an Ikea store and good karaoke singing, are carefully designed to make the lovelorn gnaw on the seat.

Tom’s hunt is for the girl who will complete his life, indeed give meaning to it, in a workaday world where he’s clearly wasting his better potential. Likewise, Alec and Laura’s electric attraction presents a rose of brilliance amidst the drab, utterly worn-out, wartime English landscape it describes with insidious accuracy, one they are condemned to express through carefully chosen words and a couple of kisses that will not be seen to rupture the surface givens of their lives. The directness of their verbal expressions, contradicted by the rigidity (shading into hysteria) of their behaviour, is in exact counterpoint to the messy, indistinct, unnamed emotions that Summer prefers. Belying her naturally imbued gravitational force as an attractive female, Summer is a far more withdrawn, tentative personality than Tom. She is wary of relationships after her parents’ divorce left her deeply wounded as a girl and detests the kind of clarity Tom eventually demands in their relationship—a clarity that comes all too naturally to Alec and Laura, if also painfully.

The two films, then, capture an exact contradiction in evolving romantic relations: Brief Encounter describes a world dominated by a rigid ethical system in which adulterous passion, even if accidental, is impossible and doomed to be unconsummated. (500) Days of Summer is about an age liberated enough to remove the necessity for clandestine displays of emotion but, ironically, leaving the lovers mildly terrified not of other people, but rather of each other. Both situations eat up the participants when they realise they can go no further. Summer begins to spurn Tom when he gets into a fight with an obnoxious yuppie who tries to chat her up, and insults him, bewildered and frigid after a spectacle of intense irrational emotion. Alec and Laura curtail their romance when a chance for sex in the flat of a friend of Alec’s is derailed when that friend (Valentine Dyall) returns unexpectedly, shaking Laura to her core as she perceives her crumbling values.

Somehow, the world of Brief Encounter, even though it’s an older one with many a dated detail, seems far more real than the polished world of (500) Days of Summer, where everything retains a crisp sheen of contemporary rom-com buoyancy even when trying to describe deep emotional pain. For instance, when Tom quits his job in a stew of resentment and anguish, his following spell of unemployment seems detached from any pressing financial needs except when communicated in the glibbest of fashions. Brief Encounter, on the other hand, delights in a detailed world of train timetables, stale sandwiches, annoying acquaintances, borrowed cars and flats, and all the immediate, tactile details of life.

The films also accord with ironic juxtapositions of the ideal and reality, particularly in how both couples share pop culture tropes that both define and offset their lives. (500) Days’ best scenes are pastiches that deliberately distort reality to fit into movie tropes whilst making the audience conscious of this, like when Tom, ebullient after having slept with Summer for the first time, struts through the park, the world turned into his own private movie musical, and Han Solo beams back at him from a mirror; later, when he watches arty foreign films, he projects himself into them as miserable protagonist. In Brief Encounter, Alec and Laura are amused by an advertisement for a movie called Flames of Passion, which they later see and find awful, replete with the amusing clichés of moviemaking—rampaging natives and elephants— that belittle the everyday reality of its characters. (500) Days makes more of a show of the irony in a sequence that presents Tom’s to-be-dashed hopes of reunion with Summer in split-screen with his imagined anticipations. There’s also a similar friction, which Tom rebels against, in the platitudinous art of greeting cards, which he finally condemns as bullshit.

Both films take a nonlinear, retrospective, post-mortem approach: Laura, whilst sitting in her living room with her husband, imagines she is explaining the sordid tale to him: the illicit couple’s forlorn appearance when happened upon by an acquaintance at the outset is finally explained when the narrative returns to the moment. (500) Days toggles back and forth through the course of the titular days with a counter flashing on screen, offering telling juxtapositions, such as a scene of Tom making a failed joke for Summer’s benefit, then explaining what he was trying for by winding back to when the same gags cracked her up. In both films, this look-back-in-torpor device is used for subtle reassurance, identifying the romance as being in the past, something recalled and informed by shadings of perception. Tonally, however, the films are a great distance apart. Brief Encounter aims for, and hits, a kind of everyday tragedy, whereas (500) Days is much more blithe, finding humour in Tom’s sadsackery and defusing emotional power with jokey discursions that constantly nudge the ribs.

What makes (500) Days relatively fresh and occasionally acute in its outlook is its efforts to confront and analyse a modern tendency to emotional dissociation and detestation for the familiar structures of male-female relations, especially in essaying this theme through a female avatar (“Shit, you’re a guy!” Tom’s friend McKenzie (Geoffrey Arend) exclaims when he hears Summer’s philosophy of anti-love) in contrast with an ardent young man who believes in romantic fate getting his heart handed to him on a plate. The trouble is, the film itself plays a game much like its heroine, stating rather than delving, skipping around any direct confrontation with emotional fractures.

Summer herself was described by one magazine as a memorable villain, and though that’s a bit much, there’s an element of truth in that assessment. (500) Days commences with a gag title (“Note: the following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Especially you, Jenny Beckman. Bitch.”) that pretends to lay a comic misogyny on the table, but then proceeds to explore a not-quite-so-comic misogyny in the finale. Summer, who has married after falling head over heels, and Tom have essentially changed places in their attitude to love, a glib cop-out from acknowledging the fact that Summer is, deep down, a very obnoxious person and Tom is a childish fool. “Other things matter too,” Laura retorts to Alec’s proposal that their love is all that matters: “Self respect, manners, and decency!” Summer and Tom very rarely display any of those qualities.

Of course, the distance between Brief Encounter and (500) Days of Summer isn’t just one of tone and era. Brief Encounter was a tremendously original film when it was released, its ironic contrasts and low-key, realistic approach to screen romance vibrant, and its careful use of a specific piece of preexisting music—Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2—laid groundwork for the kind of integrated use of such music which many a later film, including (500) Days, indulge aplenty. It is a near-perfect film, only blemished by some of screenwriter Noel Coward’s too-noble-for-belief dialogue in occasions. Still, Lean and Coward’s complementary gifts were in near-perfect tune in this film. (500) Days, for its part, is often imitative of other recent movies, parlaying fragments of Woody Allen and Amelie, amongst many others, to gussy up its by-the-book efforts to be eccentric: Tom’s scenes with his two male buddies McKenzie and Paul (Matthew Gray Gubler) and his precocious, advice-giving, vodka-prescribing younger sister (Chloë Grace Moretz) are straight Sundance 101. If Brief Encounter created a new formula, (500) Days extends formula but slightly.

Standard
1970s, British cinema, Drama

Ryan’s Daughter (1970)

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Director: David Lean
Screenwriter: Robert Bolt

By Roderick Heath

A contradiction of Ryan’s Daughter is that, in spite of the sheer expansiveness of its style and production, it’s an often painfully intimate tale. The film’s antiheroic romanticism is nailed solidly together by two rigid spikes: one, a bolt of irony that borders on cruelty as the characters’ fantasies seem to be fulfilled only to be snatched away to leave them squalidly floundering, and the other, a steely insistence upon moral backbone. David Lean’s penultimate film, the calamitous reception of which drove him from the cinema screen for more than a decade, nonetheless carries the flavour of a crucially personal piece of work—more personal, indeed, than the mighty but disjointed Doctor Zhivago (1965), his big previous success.

Although it retained the vast cinematic expanses of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter was, in many ways, a return to his roots, a point illustrated by his bringing back Trevor Howard and John Mills, who had been leading men in his Brief Encounter (1945) and Great Expectations (1946), as character actors. Like Encounter, Ryan’s Daughter is about an adulterous affair. Like Madeleine (1950), it follows a transgressive heroine who is harshly punished for the perception of that transgression. Unlike the crisp domestic simplicity of those earlier films, however, Ryan’s Daughter appropriates the whole of Ireland as its canvas, essaying in lustrous sprawls of earth, sky, and sea. Although, like Zhivago, it contrasts private passion with civil conflict and elemental force, the film’s far more focused, and the way those aspects relate are more acutely paradoxical.

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It’s 1916, and Ireland vibrates with the spirit of revolt and detestation of the occupying English soldiers. Rosy Ryan (Sarah Miles) is the spoilt, starry-eyed daughter of Thomas (Leo McKern), the publican of a small coastal village where everyone is essentially faced with the same problem: soul-crushing boredom. Rosy reads romantic literature and harbours a crush on her former teacher, Charles Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum), the closest thing to a bohemian in the district. The most respected figure in town is Father Hugh Collins (Howard), embodiment of muscular Christianity; the least respected is the deformed, childish Michael (Mills). But they are two men united in their love of fishing and their protective impulses for Rosy, and, like she and Charles, distinct from the townsfolk.

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Rosy declares her love for Charles, and he, despite his misgivings over their age difference and his own lackluster temperament, gives in. Their wedding night is a calamity, and Rosy is soon driven in wayward circles by her dissatisfied yen until fate tosses her a dubious answer to her prayers: Major Doryan (Christopher Jones), a shell-shocked, limping British war hero who takes over a base situated close to the schoolhouse Charles runs. Charles waits moodily for their affair to burn itself out, and the townsfolk, getting wind of it, ostracise her, but a tenuous balance continues until an IRA hero, Tim O’Leary (Barry Foster), comes to retrieve a shipment of arms dropped off the coast by German ships.

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Ryan’s Daughter’s genesis was when Lean and writing partner Robert Bolt planned to adapt Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Upon hearing that a rival version might beat theirs, they decided on a looser adaptation, and relocated the tale to a more dramatic location, while retaining the tart flavour of Flaubert’s work. For anyone paying attention, Ryan’s Daughter is often excruciating in the proliferation of humiliations small and large—sexual, emotional, and social. The hugeness of nature’s overflowing force contrasts the pettiness of the people, and yet connects to their slow-burning passion. For Bolt, the script was a love letter to star Miles, his wife, and for Lean, the film seems almost an emotional autobiography. At the time it might have looked out of date, but today it seems more a riff on certain clichés that inverts their meaning.

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The characters, except for Doryan, who merely snatches at opportunities to alleviate his shellshock, are defined by attachment to private myths, but these can manifest in very different ways. Doryan, for lacking them, chooses self-annihilation. Rosy is the obvious linchpin, her expansive nature intricately connected to the rhythms of the world. Charles, too, is defined by his fantasies, as hinted by his love of Beethoven, and manifesting when he traces the prints Rosy and Doryan have left on the beach, imagining Doryan in the dress uniform of another era’s cavalier and Rosy in a refined yellow dress, as Maurice Jarre’s intelligent score spirals in Beethoven-ish vigour. It’s a scene that bares the workings of Charles the man, and explicates his reaction to Rosy’s adultery, feeding as it does his own need for oversized gestures even as it tortures him. Michael is tormented by his adoration for Rosy, thinking, in his childish way, that if he does as the other men do at Rosy’s wedding, or if he imitates Doryan, that he might appeal to her. He tends to reflect the lacks of others back at them: the villagers’ casual cruelty in tearing off a lobster’s claw; the foolish enthusiasm in love of Rosie and Charles and of the villagers again in playing with weaponry; and echoing Doryan’s gammy leg when following him. The villagers cling to a different fantasy of transcendence, that of the rebellion, a fantasy consummated in aiding O’Leary haul the weapons from the grip of an apocalyptic storm.

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To approach Lean’s “epics” without a sense of his use of landscape as not merely backdrop but a spiritual barometer for his characters, a pantheistic linkage of human nature and elemental rhythm, is to miss much of their point. But it’s there in the throb and rush of the trains that drive through Brief Encounter and in Madeleine, where the electrified, sensual reels of the poor dancers offsets the surrender of bourgeois Madeleine to sexual passion. It’s present in the clawing trees and blasted spaces that terrify Pip in Great Expectations, and the manifestation of Miss Havisham’s diseased psyche that is her house, which Pip, unlike his counterpart in Dicken’s novel, awakens to and revolts. Lean, the product of a Quaker upbringing in which a private ethical compass is paramount, rebelled and led an often errantly sensual life himself, full of fractious unions. He gravitated to such fraught tales of friction between just such a compass and fervent impulse. In his later films, there is a larger contrast between that sort of private confusion, and larger, less easily perceived patterns of duty and manipulation. In Ryan’s Daughter, Rosy’s need for eruptive passion hands the villagers a scapegoat when O’Leary is caught and the guns impounded right at the moment of their triumph. His capture was the fault of Rosy’s own father, equally given as he is to proselytising for the rebellion but happy to collect money as an informer who, finally, is forced to betray O’Leary.

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At the film’s heart is sex—indeed, bad sex: subjects still new to the mainstream cinema at the time, the latter hardly tackled directly before. Specifically, it highlights the crushing failure that is Charles and Rosy’s wedding night, when he, crippled by anxiety and repression, and she, hoping for a transcendent glory, are both left stewing, having passed through a Hogarthian nightmare of a wedding feast in which the bored, horny locals mock the anxious couple, subject Rosy to a parade of meaty kisses, and pelt the windows of their room with grain. And yet, Charles is a strong, virile man—he’s Robert Mitchum, after all—and Rosy and he have a charged exchange when she encourages him to sit without his shirt after a day’s digging during tea so she can enjoy the sight of his body. Later, when Rosy and Doryan rendezvous for their first coupling, they ride into a dark forest, the floor of which is lined with purplish flowers, tinged both with unknowable threat and promise. Ironically, the following sexual coupling is the only misjudged one in the movie, using corny, natural motifs to reflect the tides of Rosy’s orgasm.

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Rosy’s search for personal bliss explicitly contrasts the town’s search for communal excitement, cut off as it is from direct expression of passions. “It’s either married or virgin ‘round ‘ere,” Doryan’s predecessor as commander of the camp (Gerald Sim), warns him. Early on, the lads and lasses of the town stand on opposite sides of the single street, eyeing each other in teasing, frustrated ranks. When Michael comes between them, brandishing the colossal lobster he’s caught that seems to encapsulate both his own personal ugliness and the arbitrariness of cruelty, the young men fall on him to the wailing, hysterical delight of the girls. It’s a sexless orgy that anticipates the great communal frenzy on the beach, and then Rosy’s Calvary, during which the whole town delights in stripping off her clothes, cutting off her hair, and mocking her sensuality.

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Despite the film’s breadth, the most telling details come in small, even barely perceivable gestures: when Doryan strips off his overcoat, halting a typist’s labours in recognising the telltale red ribbon on his tunic; when Rosy realises that her father is the traitor everyone thinks she is; the sand that confirms Rosy’s adultery, caked in her hat; when Rosy rushes out to greet Doryan in the night, thinking Charles is asleep, and a cut back to Charles watching them from their house immediately severs the romantic intensity of the moment, halting the swooning surge in the score with the force of a punch in the belly. Ideas are filtered through chains of imagery and totems of character.

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How Lean shoots his characters, especially in the first 15 minutes, encapsulates their relationships to both the world and themselves. Rosy reigns on the clifftops and meadows, adrift like her wind-snatched parasol. Hugh and Michael are at home in the bitter honesty of the sea. Charles is constantly walking the sand of the beach, between the two realms, and discerns Rosy’s affair through the marks it leaves there. Doryan, when he arrives, is insistently associated with stark, rough-hewn stone and the ruins of the ship in which he finally destroys himself in an auto de fé. The townsfolk always appear in masses, sliced through by or enveloping the major figures. Like Zhivago and the Dickens works he adapted early on, Ryan’s Daughter is droll, but increasingly, unamusingly barbed in its caricature of self-important, self-appointed apostles who shrink before individuals whose authority of spirit is unquestioned, but, like termites, overwhelm the heroes with their numbers.

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It’s perhaps legitimate to criticise the film for conflating disparate ideas—D. H. Lawrence sensuality in the woods abutting a Flaubertian scorn for provincialism and private fantasies, with some of Synge’s roughneck poeticism and acid portraits of the Celtic character for flavour. And yet it’s precisely the film’s contrapuntal rhythm contrasting those different aspects that is its soul and point, the alternations of whimsy and tragedy, ardour and humiliation. The smallness of gestures revealing the largest of failings, the contrasts that interrogate rhetorical tropes like “love” and “bravery,” the latter as crucial an element as the former. “A brave man’s a brave man,” Ryan says to Doryan as both compliment and rebuke when he comes to drink in the pub, “whether in Irish green, British khaki, or German grey.” Ryan works himself to a pitch of heroism in pulling guns from the eye of the storm, after calling up his English masters who will wait to deflate the heroic moment. Doryan, in listening to the Captain’s account of his own fear that he’ll disgrace himself in battle, can only tell him: “You don’t know what you’ll do.” All he remembers of battle is cowering and squirming in the muck. It becomes clear in the end that Charles, with his unflinching capacity to face the worst in himself and the world and still stand up, is the bravest chap around.

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Mills won a Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Michael, and he does it supremely well, but it’s a gift considering the role, and Howard and McKern would have been just as rightly rewarded if they’d gained the statuette. Mitchum’s presence in the film is odd, and yet, on reflection, it’s hard to see anyone else doing a better job; his Irish accent is fine, and that resolutely down-to-earth style he possessed as an actor serves his character’s gentleness perfectly. Miles was Oscar-nominated, but lost to Glenda Jackson’s similarly lusty, ambitious character in Women in Love. Still, Miles plays Rosy beautifully, achieving that most difficult of arcs in film acting—not just growing older, but growing up. Broader, but enjoyable performances come from Marie Keen and Arthur O’Connell as the village’s chief bigots, Mr. and Mrs. McCardle, and Evin Crowley as the tarty, nasty Moureen, who blooms in girlish joy when she gets an excited kiss from O’Leary. Jones practically disappeared after this film, by his own choice, but he was extremely effective here, perhaps even more than Lean’s original choice Marlon Brando might have been: his Doryan is deeply alienated, almost operating on a different time scale to the rest of the characters, and certainly living in a different reality to them. He vaguely portends Michael Sarrazin’s Frankenstein’s monster in Frankenstein: The True Story (1973), insofar as he looks like a romantic hero and yet is crudely stitched together, an alien being created by the shock of modernity.

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It’s confirmed in the finale that heroism can be the opposite of what it can appear to be. Charles and Rosy have to muster real courage and walk out of the town pretending that their marriage is solid and that they don’t care about the locked doors and jeering whistles that send them off. They continue to maintain their self-possession even when the wind snatches away Rosy’s hat, revealing the horror that is now her hair to a stunned Michael. The end is, in a way, a cleansing fire, and, interestingly, Charles and Rosy are the only characters in a Lean epic to emerge in one piece, galvanised in personality and outlook. In bidding them farewell, Hugh crossly tells Charles that if they’re thinking they’re better off splitting up, “I doubt it! That’s my gift to you—that doubt!” It’s not much of a comfort, but we still feel like cheering.

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