All the world’s a stage, but in the case of Joe Wright’s new screen adaptation of Anna Karenina, perhaps it shouldn’t be. While wish I could say that Wright’s conceptual audacity in setting his new movie version of Tolstoy’s classic largely inside a decrepit, 19th century theater—a deliberately artificial conceit at once clever and self-conscious—was a masterstroke of imagination, it plays like a leaden gimmick that robs the picture of substance and depth, visually inventive as it is. Sometimes being able to do something doesn’t mean you actually should.
Acted with both intelligence and pathos by Keira Knightley as Anna and Jude Law as her cuckolded politician husband Alexei Karenin, Anna Karenina takes place in 1874 Russia where we meet the perfect wife, ready to unravel. For the better part of a decade, Anna has been a dutiful spouse and mother, raising a beloved nine-year-old son while pretending to be happy for the sake of both her husband and their societal position. She may be trapped but she hasn’t lost her joie de vivre, and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay captures the dizzying descent Anna experiences upon meeting Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) while on a trip to counsel her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfayden) over his own adulterous fling which has devastated his simple wife, Dolly (Kelly MacDonald).
That Anna has everything—a loving husband, stature, wealth, a beautiful son and is a gorgeous creature herself—matters little once Vronsky enters her orbit. While Anna recognizes the absurdity of their affair, she’s alive in a way she’s never quite been—and soon she’s walking out on her befuddled husband and beloved son. All of this makes Anna a fascinating if not likable character, yet one certainly worthy of empathy in Knightley’s hands, at once imprisoned under glass then freed, adored by society and then shunned. The superb Knightley makes the picture come to life with vivid emotions telegraphing Anna’s transgressions. Yet the actress is fighting a losing game as much as the titular anti-heroine.
Wright’s Anna Karenina is all about directorial flourishes, the director imposing conceptual aggression on every second of it, choreographing even the language and movements within scenes. What is this version not about? It isn’t enough about the primal pull of love and the weight of great tragedy. Sure, Tolstoy’s plot is there, and the performances work hard to convince us, but the artifice of the theatrical setting nearly sinks our investment in the picture.
An exception is the concurrent story of simple farmer Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who falls in mad love with pure Kitty (Alicia Vikander), yet is content to toil away on the land making an honest living in blissful monogamy, while Anna careens toward a tragedy heavily foreshadowed throughout the picture for anyone who already knows the ending.
A bit over his head is Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a great looking Vronsky sporting a blonde mop and requisite sex appeal, perhaps too young for the part. Johnson, a likeable leading man in Kick Ass, Nowhere Boy and Savages, might have brought a bit more gravitas .
Wright, whose former collaborations with Knightley soared, particularly Atonement, a masterpiece of storytelling, apparently decided a mere few weeks prior to shooting that he would impose the theatrical gimmick on the material—society is watching Anna, see, and what better way than in a theater space—and the result is nearly fatal when combined with the stylized ballet the actors seem to perform both onstage (where the famous horse race takes place), in the orchestra (seats removed to accommodate dance halls) or above on the scaffolding (a street full of commoners). This is a director’s movie, and he miscalculated.
Anna Karenina should be about burning passions but the style is the whole story here and that sinks the substance.
2 1/2 stars.