The re-invented Anna Karenina is an intoxicating spectacle that breathes new life into the classic Tolstoy novel, incorporating the notion that all life's a stage -- at least for imperial Russian society.
But the gorgeously intricate presentation (** 1/2 out of four; rated R; opens Friday in select cities) and frenzied activity can distract from the deeply emotional elements and social constraints which are at the heart of the sprawling tale.
Keira Knightley's Anna is stunning, decked out in veiled hats and other attire which communicate her status as a kind of prisoner of proper Russian society. But the chemistry between Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Count Vronsky -- the young cavalry officer she falls madly in love with -- is sorely lacking. (Who decided to bleach Taylor-Johnson's dark hair to gold and give him a head of tousled curls and a thin mustache so that he resembles a young Gene Wilder?) Without a sense of the smoldering passion that led her famously to those train tracks, Anna just seems blandly impetuous and Vronsky comes off as a run-of-the-mill rake.
The main setting is an empty theater, with painted backdrops. Those who are not members of the upper echelons of imperial Russia are confined to the wings and catwalks. A tightly choreographed scene showing the workaday world seems more suited to The Producers than to this romantic tale.
The film's blend of stylized theatricality, elaborate choreography and painterly design is a visual treat. Sometimes the style meshes with the dramatic material, but at other times it rings hollow. The pampered Anna's limited sphere contributes to her tragic end. But when these social strictures are depicted with frenetic energy, they feel more lighthearted than burdensome.
Director Joe Wright has fashioned a sumptuous-looking film set in the 1870s that, while not a musical, brings to mind Moulin Rouge with its blend of costume drama, intentional artifice and palpable excitement.
Playwright Tom Stoppard was a wise choice to adapt the novel to a stagey film, as he makes full use of Leo Tolstoy's clever prose and emphasizes welcome comic relief.
Knightley's Anna is resplendent, even in her suffering. She's stuck in a loveless marriage with dull high-ranking official Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) but has a young son she adores. Law is terrific as the cuckolded husband. He conveys a quiet stillness that comes off alternately as measured stoicism and intransigence.
Anna travels from St. Petersburg to Moscow to help her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) salvage his marriage to Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). Along the way she visits Dolly's sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander) and then trades meaningful glances with Vronsky. They share a dance at a ball and are quickly besotted.
A sub-plot involves Oblonsky's best friend, the socially awkward but earnest Levin (Domnhall Gleeson), who is deeply in love with Kitty. Their slow-to-build love story is essentially the opposite of Anna and Vronsky's quick-burning passion. Kitty learns to make sacrifices for love, which is something Anna struggles with, in her mad obsession with Vronsky. When her husband learns of the affair he gives Anna an ultimatum: give up Vronsky or forever lose the chance to see her son.
Wright's ornate take on Karenina is bold and ambitious and incorporates several interweaving narrative threads artfully. What it does less well is examine the social fabric and emotional havoc that tore Anna apart. Instead, we're struck by the rich fabric of her lavish costumes and the glint of her jewels. We don't feel her pain as much as admire how exquisitely it's depicted.