ANNA KARENINA (R) A 19th-century Russian noblewoman and wife of a high-ranking government official, Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), plunges into a passionate and reckless affair with a foppish young military officer, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and pays the consequences. Her marriage to Alexi Karenin (Jude Law) frays, and her reputation dims in the eyes of her gossiping social peers.
There have been numerous screen adaptations of Leo Tolstoy's classic novel, but director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard's take might be the most radically stylish of them all. Wright and his production team actualize Moscow and Saint Petersburg high society as a hermetic doll's world, surrounding the actors with opulent stage-bound sets and miniatures. The artful conceit is striking, particularly in the long-take transition sequences. Baz Luhrmann's frenetic 2001 musical melodrama Moulin Rouge! feels like an influence here, but Wright is far more nuanced in the way that he employs the razzle-dazzle than Luhrmann ever was. Although the majority of Anna Karenina is set on obvious stages, many of the scenes dealing with the young idealist Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) are shot outside where naturalism is allowed to take root again, abandoning the ravishing plastic of urban life behind. The aesthetic contrast is logical (Levin loathes the cities), and it makes for some visually sumptuous moments.
This brazen approach to the material, unfortunately, does something else: It weakens the overall emotional weight of the story. Wright's intentional distancing effects work too well. This is Knightley's third collaboration with the director, and unlike the previous roles, she never manages to work her way out of the layers of elegant theatrics to get to something real here. Her dusky almond eyes stare longingly back at us, but there's barely a glimmer of life in them. Anna may be the prototypical bored wife, but Knightley fails to exude real passion even when she's lost in the throes of her affair. The horribly miscast Taylor-Johnson fares even worse, coming off like a parody of a 19th-century dreamboat. Ultimately, both performances are bloodless. The real acting standouts are Law, Gleeson and Martin Macfadyen as Anna's brother. Even through all of the heavy extravagance, they each manage to reinstate some humanity into the proceedings. It's during those scenes that you forget wanting that train to roll in ahead of schedule.