The pedigree of the latest “Anna Karenina” remake is impressive: director Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Pride & Prejudice”) and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (“Shakespeare in Love,” “Brazil”). Not to mention Tolstoy’s towering novel, on which this is based.
But the highly stylized concept Wright and Stoppard use in telling the story — presenting it almost as a stage play, set in and around the environs of a theater — constantly takes us out of that story.
Scenery pieces shift in and out. Ropes and rafters and footlights remind us where we are — except when we are suddenly in the great outdoors.
Not only does this overpowering framework diminish what we feel for Anna, it also dilutes the importance of time and place in how events unfold.
If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself paying more attention to the direction and that high concept than to investing yourself emotionally in the characters.
Keira Knightley fails to resonate as Anna, an upper-class Russian wife and mother who falls so hopelessly in love with a cavalry officer named Vronsky that she cannot hide the indiscretion from her husband and a condemning society.
Nor does Aaron Taylor-Johnson work as Vronsky. Though he’s handsome enough to make you believe Anna would be attracted, he’s not substantive enough to seem likely to make a woman throw away her whole life. (His overly moussed blond locks and moustache reminded me of a young Gene Wilder.)
The result is a beautiful but unsatisfying melodrama that feels centered on a character toward whom we’re unlikely to feel sympathy.
In fact, I found myself wishing this selfish, sometimes shrewish woman would meet her untimely end as prematurely as possible.
This in spite of the fact that Wright has created a visually sumptuous film, overflowing with carefully composed pictures, gorgeous costumes, eye-popping color schemes, inventive scene transitions, meticulous period detail.
And not everyone seemed to be acting in the same soap opera in which Knightley and Taylor-Johnson find themselves.
Jude Law gives a stellar performance as Karenin, a vessel of tamped-down rage. He earns sympathy when he famously thanks God he is no longer cursed by love for his wife. Law is the anchor that keeps the movie from flying completely out of control.
Olivia Wilde equals him as Vronsky’s starchy mother, who cannot see her own hypocrisy as she seethes over how her son is wrecking his life.
Domhnall Gleeson, as earnest farmer Levin, and Alicia Vikander, as the woman who at first spurns his advances, grow on you as the story unfolds.
And you’ll be thankful for Matthew Macfadyen as Anna’s wayward brother, providing comical relief behind a ridiculous moustache. Kelly Macdonald is also fine as his wife, urged toward forgiveness by her sister-in-law.
This version of “Anna Karenina” made me think of the stylized “Moulin Rouge,” except that high concept accentuated what you felt for the characters.
It’s never a good thing when you’re hoping for a train to pull in while watching “Anna Karenina.”
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