Given his track record for looking at classic, frequently filmed stories with fresh eyes, Joe Wright's new adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's “Anna Karenina” should be the version that escapes the shadow of the epochal 1935 version starring Greta Garbo. Instead, Wright imposes an unnecessary visual quirk on “Anna Karenina”: almost all of the action takes place in a theater, with rigging, lights and scenery changes rather than real physical settings.
By doing this, Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard put too much space between the audience and the unfolding tragedy — instead of being a film adaptation of “Anna Karenina,” this is a movie about a theater performance.
Stoppard is no stranger to creating meta-level stories based on classics — his credits include “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” a comic retelling of “Hamlet” from the perspective of two minor characters, and the engagingly referential “Shakespeare in Love.” But Tolstoy's story about an aristocratic woman's fall from grace can only be effective if the tragedy feels emotionally true and real, and with Wright and Stoppard moving sets and stirring up unnecessary choreography in the background, Keira Knightley's strong performance as Anna is constantly undermined.
Knightley captures every stage of Anna, embodying the radiance of the young Russian society pillar married to Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin (Jude Law), her passion as she succumbs to temptation with Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and Anna's increasing mental instability as she is cast out of the upper crust for her indiscretions. She and Law are wonderful, though Taylor-Johnson seems miscast and lost among his fellow players, but none of them have a chance to really resonate with all the distracting stagecraft.
There is a rationale for all this: Anna's infidelity takes place in full view of those around her, and it is so brazen that she might as well have sold tickets. This is a fairly astute insight into the nature of Anna's tragedy, but Wright and Stoppard sledgehammer the idea for more than two hours. Occasionally, Wright does let the characters step off the stage, especially during the more uplifting secondary romance between Levin (the excellent Domhnall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander), but this creates another problem — Wright never justifies these transitions into the real world. They look arbitrary, even accidental.
In his debut film, 2005's adaptation of Jane Austen's “Pride and Prejudice,” Wright made the important decision to ignore all previous adaptations of the novel, finding the earthy essence of Elizabeth Bennet's Regency England by peeling away 70 years worth of costume dramas. Those instincts were put to even better use in his follow-up, “Atonement.” But with “Anna Karenina,” Wright's concern seems to have shifted away from finding the essential truth in his source material, and now he is succumbing to the brand of artifice audiences might expect from a frenetic, distracted Baz Luhrmann movie. Tolstoy's novel is one of the great morality tales about cheating and its consequences, but with their version of “Anna Karenina,” Wright and Stoppard commit a cinematic infidelity.
— George Lang
Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson. (Sexuality and violence)