Thoughts on Visual Enchantment

I recently went to the cinema to watch the latest Keira Knightley flick, Anna Karenina. I was expecting a pleasantly-engrossing period drama from director Joe Wright, who also directed Atonement a few years ago, but what I saw blew me away and filled me with a mixture of exhilaration and misery – the kind of feeling you get when faced with an art work or product which epitomises your greatest passions and ideas, therefore rendering them utterly redundant. 

Firstly, Joe Wright’s films have always been of interest to me because of the director’s personal connection to a very special place in North London – the Little Angel Puppet Theatre. His parents established the puppet theatre (which still puts on a brilliant range of puppet shows for children and adults) and he grew up immersed in it. Through my own studies in puppetry, at the Central School of Speech and Drama, I was lucky enough to spend several friday mornings in the theatre’s ramshackle workshop making a rod puppet under the guidance of Joe’s mother, Lyndie (there haven’t been many happier times than those spent carving away and sanding down my puppet’s wooden hands, still the objects of my smug pride five years later).  The Little Angel Theatre certainly has a special magic that rubs off on those who step inside.

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Inside the Little Angel Theatre

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I had watched a couple of other Joe Wright films and enjoyed them well enough, but soon after Anna Karenina had begun I realised that something very exciting was taking place before my eyes, and this blockbuster was unexpectedly entering into the realm of my own arcane obsessions.

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Anna Karenina

The cinema screen became an elaborate proscenium arch, a strange, Victorian portal leading the eye inwards to a visual treasure chest of hand-painted worlds – something far, far from anything I have witnessed in a cinema via a mainstream film before. It emerged that the entire plotline of the film was to take place within a theatre, with several non-verbal action sequences featuring characters moving, dancing, in strange, ritualistic synchronicity. There were virtually no outdoor film shots – of Moscow, of the barren plains of Russia, of a sleeted railway station – all scenes featured hand-painted backdrops. Wright had turned the cinema screen into a Victorian miniature paper theatre. It was the stuff of my wildest fantasies. I was gobsmacked. I was in rapture. I was deeply depressed and jealous and miserable. It was agonising.

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Anna Karenina

Undertaking a little research into the film, I was fascinated to learn that this cinematic experiment came about mainly due to financial restrictions. The film crew couldn’t afford to travel to all 200 or so locations, so a plucky team member suggested creating a purpose-built theatre in England and filming it all in there instead, swapping a hefty travel bill for a large team of scenic painters.

Terry Gilliam’s ‘The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’ sprang to mind watching this – another brave revolt against the 3D digital era, featuring an odd troupe of itinerant Victorian folk theatre artistes and their life-sized toy theatre with clunky, intricate scenic elements…  

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‘The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’

I also thought of George Melies and his fabricated visual fantasy worlds, created entirely in a glass-roofed workshop in Paris and brought to life via endless hand-coloured plates.

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George Melies

I was interested to read some punters’ reviews of Anna Karenina online:- “what a waste of time, I can’t believe they didn’t even have real film scenes, it was totally unbelievable” and another one which echoed such sentiments but ended by also commending “the electric chemistry” between Keira Knightly and the weedy, vacuous drip of a male lead.

To me, this is the future – or at least, this is my future. I can only speak for myself, but I am bored by digital and photographic realism – when it is viewed through plastic 3D vision glasses, indeed, I would go as far as saying that it makes me nauseous.

When the visual world has been conquered and mastered by Pixar et al, I say its time to return to the creaky, wonky, lovingly-crafted picture realms created the old ways – with paint, canvas, scrolling paper, cranks, wires and shadows. That’s the kind of realism my eye is thirsting for.

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