Monday, 11 February 2013

Anna Karenina: Chanel advert wins Best Costume BAFTA

So the BAFTA's have been announced and Jacqueline Durran won Best Costume Design for 'Anna Karenina'.

Watching Joe Wright's 'Anna Karenina', I kept half expecting Kiera Knightly to say Nicole Kidmans famously terrible lines from Baz Luhrmanns Chanel No 5 advert "I'm a dancer, I love to dance." It does genuinely feel like Baz Luhrmann made a long-awaited sequel to his 'most expensive advert ever made'.

Wright and Durran, appear to come as a packaged set, much in the way the Luhrmann and his oscar winning wife Catherine Martin do. Luhrmann recently sparked debate for his choice to use Prada designed gowns in his latest film 'The Great Gatsby'.  Like Luhrmann, Wright has directed a commercial for Chanel - yes that horrifically wanky Brad Pitt one with the bad script and worse lighting. His go-to leading lady Kiera Knightly has also modelled for Chanel. So when they say that the decision for all the jewellery in the piece to come from the latest ready-to-wear Chanel collection because it was a 'design decision', forgive me if I'm skeptical. In 'Moulin Rouge' (2001) Luhrmann had Nicole Kidman wear an expensive genuine diamond collar to creat publicity around the film, but at least it was designed for the film. Wright chose to use genuine diamond and pearl necklaces from Chanel's existing range. Both directors rationalised this by saying 'real' diamonds look different on screen and were important to show the excesses of their characters.

The film is, for some unknown reason, set in a highly dramatic faux world of a 'decaying' theatre, as the characters 'perform' in society as if they are 'on stage'. If you think that sounds like a first year drama college ideas, you'd be right. (one of the excuses I read is that the only locations Wright could find had already been used for Tolstoy adaptations or Keira Knightly period films already - I didn't realise Britain and Russia were so short on architecture). To match the setting, the late 19th century setting costumes also needed to be stylised. They pared the bustle silhouette back to clean lines, heavily inspired by 1950s Dior new look shape, getting rid of the fussy decorations (and colour combinations), and giving everything an asymmetrical slant. So it was only a natural progression to use modern Chanel jewellery in diamonds and pearls. (Sure!) Apparently it's to show you the excess of the world in which Anna lives, but instead you feel like Knightly is a walking, talking jewellery shop window.

I'm not a purist. I appreciate mixing things up and being interesting, as long as there's a point to it. But nothing about this film seems to gel together. There is no overall vision that brings together the sum of its parts. Both Wright's direction and Durran's costumes seem to have a giant red flag waving over them saying 'Did you see what I did there?' In a ball scene all the extras wear the same dress in various (but individually monochromatic) pastel colours. The obsession with single colour taffeta and tulle costumes for the upper classes in this film means that there simply isn't any layers or textures to the scenes. And later when everyones elses costumes get more historically accurate, presumably to contrast with Anna's social outcast status, her costume design seems even more unnecessary. The end result is that it feels like you've wandered into some sort of avante garde couture bridalwear runway show. There I've said it. The 'costumes' kind of resemble wedding gowns, pretty frocks, rather than interesting and well thought out costume designs.Anyone with knowledge of designer wedding dresses, or even high-end couture evening gowns over the past 15 years won't be impressed by many overly original ideas. Ian Stewart anyone?

Ian Stewart Wedding Gowns

Dior Couture Fall 2007

There are some beautiful hats, furs and veils: Anna has a particularly beautiful costume on her first train journey. I particularly like the velvet coat with the embroidered peacock feathers, which is also the most historically accurate of her costumes. But lets be honest, if you make a Russian book adaptation and don't have beautiful fur: hats, collars and coats, you're doing something REALLY wrong.     

Sophie Marceau as Anna Karenina

The poorer classes come off much better. They blend contemporary feel with period motifs much more successfully and are very much costume designed. There is an expert use of colour texture here completely lacking in the other scenes. Yes this is probably partly a statement of 'look the poorer classes have it much better', (a questionable idea in 19th century Russia), but it's also far more interesting visually. Domhnall Gleeson as secondary lover Levin, looking remarkable like David Wenham, has the most arresting scenes in the film, both in terms of acting and design.

But it is in the characterisation and storyline that this most feels like a perfume advert. In fact it draws to mind another Chanel No 5 advert, the one starring Audrey Tautou on the train. I hate to say this of the man who wrote 'Shakespeare in Love' but Tom Stoppard totally dialled this one in. The dialogue is unintentionally laugh out loud funny at times and you get no concept of the characters inner workings. One of the most important parts of the story is to understand how stifled Anne is in her marriage, what she needs Vronsky's help to escape from: but this is glossed over. Her pouty offence at her husbands (Jude Law) grumpy remarks about her having an affair and causing a scandal, make her seem like a door-slamming sulky teenager. Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky, the man she sacrifices everything for, and his commical moustache appear to have been cast for their appeal for the tween market. Wright was insistent this suit was white, not cream, and as it's impossible to get pure white wool, they had to go for a different fabric, which never looks quite right. When Luhrmann is at his best he has a sense of fun and irreverence at his seemingly impossible juxtopositions, to contrast the humour with the tragedy. All this seems to be lost of Wright and his need to be interesting for its own sake, rather than using it as a tool to emphasise the story and characters. If anything, the stylised setting makes the emotions seem one dimensional and melodramatic rather than gripping and intense. By the time the film reaches its inevetible conclusion, you are sighing with relief than crying with the tragedy of it all.

I'm going to be honest. I'm no Joe Wright fan. It was beyond me how anyone who had seen the 96 minute single shot steadicam film 'Russian Ark' (2002), or even the 7min 47sec opening shot of Robert Altman's 'The Player' (1992) could put up with the fuss they made about his 5min 15sec steady-cam shot in 'Atonement' (2007). And like almost every female (and some men) I've ever talked to, I have no idea what the appeal of Kiera Knightly is. On first seeing the advert, my husbands response was 'I'd pay to watch Keira Knightly throw herself under a train.'

But I do try and watch films with as open a mind as possible.

I loathed 'Pride and Prejudice' (2005), when I first saw it, but I have always said the concept of the costume design, also by Durran, was absolutely brilliant. By giving a far more accurate, rather than pretty, interpretation: casting the girls as the teenagers they are, emphasising Lizzy's country origins and especially by placing the costumes in a transition period between the heavily corseted 18th centure and regency cotton shift dresses which shows the difference between the older and younger generations, a modern audience could pick up on themes in the book that previous interpretations had glossed over. It was a shame then that they ruined any kudos they gained from me by making Elizabeth Bennet, the epitome of regency womanhood, decide to go for a walk in her nightgown for the final proposal scene. I don't care how you look at it, this is something that any young lady with any pretensions to respectability would NEVER EVER EVER have done.

But watching it a second time recently I realised there were two fatal pieces of casting that completely ruined the film. In a weird nod to American audiences they decided Donald Sutherland was qualified to play the quintessential taciturn but quietly paternal English gentleman Mr Bennet, resulting in some of the most awkward scenes I've ever seen on film. And then they cast charisma vacuum Matthew Macfadyen as Mr Darcy (unfortunately he reappears in 'Anna Karenina'). Colin Firth's shoes were always going to be hard to fill, but they could have at least made an attempt to fill them with someone with sex appeal, charisma and acting talent. (if you think I'm being harsh, watch him fumble his way around new TV show 'Ripper Street') I will publicly go on record and apologise to Miss Knightly: on first watching I had blamed the complete lack of sexual chemistry in the film to her, but he is equally, if not more to blame.

There was also the small fact that Wright appeared to believe he was actually adapting a Bronte novel, not a Jane Austen social comedy, focusing on pretty scenes of the wild and windswept British countryside, instead of characterisation and dialogue. But the single most unforgiveable crime was his decision to stage the most beautifully written, sexually charged scene in fiction history, Mr Darcy's first proposal to Elizabeth Bennet, in a rotunda on a hillside in the rain with the two actors speaking as if they struggled to be heard over the sound of the raindrops, and had been artificially sped up in order to fit all the words in (No doubt so that he had time to indulge in some more languid scenery shots)

I haven't read 'Atonement' but after watching 'Pride and Prejudice' and 'Anna Karenina'  I can only assume he got through school English by flicking through Cliffs notes for the important plot points and themes, and so assumes that reading novels is not actually a necessity when adapting them. At least I hope he hasn't read them, because if he has I'm even more concerned by his complete lack of understanding of the characters.

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