The opening image of an ancient theatre's proscenium arch is your first clue that director Joe Wright's take on the Leo Tolstoy novel Anna Karenina is going to lay on the theatrical artifice with a vengeance.
And so it does. Wright is a director who tends to call attention to his visual flair, even if that comes at the expense of the material. (His past films include Atonement and Hanna.)
Hence, the vast landscape of Russian society circa 1877 in Leo Tolstoy's novel is mostly squeezed into busy sets in a ramshackle old playhouse, the proscenium arch never far from our peripheral vision. A scandalous dance between the married Anna (Keira Knightley) and Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a Russian military exquisite, becomes a weird exercise in modern dance, as stylized as the rhythmic paper-pushing ballet in the bureaucratic dominion of Anna's brother Oblonsky (Matthew MacFadyen).
The only scenes in which the sets fall away occur in the subplot in which the lovelorn landowner Levin (Domnhall Gleeson) is seen scything his fields alongside his workers, a reflection of his love for the land. Consider yourself bonked over the head with Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard's conceit that urban society life is an exercise in theatre, where its members are subject to pitiless scrutiny, and woe to those who go off script.
That is the sin of Anna, a respectable society wife and mother, married to the decent but clinical, detached St. Petersburg government functionary Karenin (Jude Law). She travels to Moscow to console the distraught wife (Kelly Macdonald) of her promiscuous brother when he has been found to be having an affair with the family governess.
But it is in Moscow where Anna falls under the spell of Vronsky, who pursues her. Her drawn-out succumbing leads to her inevitable ruin. A man may have been free to indulge in extra-marital hijinks, but at that time, it could be a married woman's undoing.
While Wright's heavily stylized approach is, on occasion, visually impressive, it is at violent odds with the populist source material. The result is anything but populist. (There were three walk-outs at the free preview screening I attended.)
One must not blame the actors. Knightley, required to exhibit heightened sexuality and even more heightened neurosis, certainly does so more credibly than she did in David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method. Taylor-Johnson finds himself in the unenviable position of many a female star in that he is mostly required to look beautiful. Jude Law, an actor of formidable charm, demonstrates he can be charmless when required. But it is the supporting work by Macdonald and Macfadyen that really breathes recognizable human life into an otherwise airless work of art.
It should not have been this way. Tolstoy, like Charles Dickens, wrote works that held a mirror to society. (Anna Karenina was, like most of Dickens work, originally published in serialized form.)
If this version of Anna Karenina goes awry, it's because Wright seems more interested in reflecting his own creative ingenuity.
Selected excerpts of reviews of Anna Karenina.
"In the title role, Keira Knightley -- though beautiful to behold, and richly costumed and bejewelled -- rarely seems as lost in the dream of love as some Tolstoyans would hope. (To be fair, all Annas are doomed to fade in the lingering light of Garbo.)"
-- Anthony Lane, New Yorker
"Don't shriek at the sacrilege. My advice is to let Wright's Anna Karenina work its strange and marvellous spell."
-- Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
"If Baz Luhrmann and Wes Anderson had a baby (and, in the hyper-stylized universe Wright creates here, that wouldn't even qualify as weird), this movie is precisely how it would look."
-- Rick Kisonak, Film Threat
Starring Keira Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson
two stars out of five stars