Female book heroines

I love female heroines in books. My favourite of all time is Madame Bovary. In fact I loved it so much I named our first daughter Emma. Hopefully she won’t have the same life or fate though, as Emma Bovary takes arsenic and dies. When I studied it for A level set text our male teacher interpreted her as a silly fantasist who got what she deserved. And this said to an all female class. How passive we must have been in those days. When we studied it at uni my interpretation was different. I was much more sympathetic to Emma’s few opportunities for advancement and fulfilment in a stifling 18th century French society. She is ‘everywoman’ and just as relevant today.

I was reminded of this book when watching ‘Anna Karenina’ last night. I haven’t read the book. Shame on me! So again I was dependant upon a male (Tom Stoppard screenplay) interpretation. It’s an ambitious enactment of the book: magical and elaborate, played out as a piece of theatre and alternating with outdoor scenes which must be confusing for some audiences. The horse race scene that took place on a stage was clever and artful.

Anna came across as a selfish woman who abandoned her husband and children in the pursuit of love. Condensing a long book into two hours inevitably meant that some of the subtleties of the Tolstoy novel must have been lost. The parallels of the different love stories needed more words to be developed. And I felt that the story was let down by the characterisation. Keira Knightley makes an exquisitely beautiful Anna. But when I watch her I am aware of the artifice of the performance. The pouts, the dimpled smiles, the crestfallen looks. You remember where you have seen her do this before, say ‘Atonement’. Unlike Meryl Streep, or Kate Winslet, in any role, where you tend to forget her previous characters.

And the relationship between Anna and her lover (Russian name) forgotten was less than credible. Actor Aaron Johnstone was too unattractive, wearing a Shirley Temple wig, to match her charms. And probably hasn’t lived long enough to understand and act out the final traumas of their relationship. He seemed to give little in the final scenes. Unlike Jude Law, whom I didn’t recognise. He played Anna’s upright, uptight, moralising husband. Like Charles Bovary he is dull.

Some scenes reminded me of ‘Doctor Zhivago’. The snow, the harshness, the shallowness of Russian society (look out for Downton’s Lady Mary), the politics of Russia. There are great tableaux: the opera, the races, the meadow. But they were better brought out in the former. ‘Anna Karenina’ is more like a musical without the music, a show for the theatre. I imagine it lacks the complexity and moral messages of the book. I say ‘imagine’ for I should read it now!

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