“Anna Karenina” is back, regardless of whether we need another adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s tragic story of love, longing, locomotives and, when things work well, some pithy social material in between. Director Joe Wright gives it an original go, but his stylized, design-heavy approach undercuts essential passion.
The film is Wright’s third literary adaptation starring Keira Knightley, following “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement,” and, again, he brings a strong visual eye to solid source material. This time, however, working from Tom Stoppard’s generally Tolstoy-faithful screenplay, Wright goes further, presenting Tolstoy’s realistic drama as an operatic tragedy transpiring in a decaying theater. Yielding results both bumpy and stunning, it begins with a parting curtain.
Anna (Knightley) starts off as the dutiful wife of government official Karenin (Jude Law), with whom she shares an 8-year-old son and unblemished standing in opulent St. Petersburg society in 1874. A trip to Moscow to brighten the spirits of Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), the wife of Anna’s philandering brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), introduces Anna to Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a young military officer whose mother (Olivia Williams) says some foreshadowing things on the train.
Vronsky has been visiting Dolly’s 18-year-old sister, Kitty (Alicia Vikander), who, smitten with Vronsky, rejects the marriage proposal of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a sensitive landowner. When Vronsky dances exclusively and amorously with Anna at the ball, Kitty is devastated.
Anna, after trying to fight her feelings for Vronsky, begins an intense affair with him, and the two don’t conceal it in accordance with social codes. Anna is ostracized. Bliss becomes misery. You likely know the rest.
Visually, the movie’s a dazzler.
The theatrical style, which Wright has described as reflective of the artificiality of 1870s Russian high society, yields exquisite material ranging from the magnificently staged ball to a snow-covered toy train turning into a real one.
Unfortunately, however, the film amounts to little more than caviar for the eyes. It is not the powerful romantic tragedy or condemnation of social norms that it should be.
One problem is that the scenery upstages the actors. Wright aims so intently to make Knightley’s Anna — with her black veils — look ravishing that Knightley doesn’t receive the concerted directorial focus that she needs to explore Anna’s complexities deeply. Neither Knightley nor the weaker Taylor-Johnson convinces viewers that an extraordinary love is at stake.
More interesting is the story of Levin, whose path, which involves land, peasantry and dignity, contrasts with that of Anna and Vronsky. Commendably, Stoppard has included this often shortchanged slice of Tolstoy in his script. Wright, abandoning his stylized mode, presents Levin’s scenes with welcome realism.
Among the remaining cast, standouts include Law, who brings interesting shades to Karenin, and Vikander is touching as Kitty.