The audacious big-screen reworking of Anna Karenina is determined not to be a conventional period piece, and that sort of creative vision makes it easier to almost forgive its flaws.
The latest adaptation of the venerable Leo Tolstoy novel comes from British director Joe Wright (Atonement) and Oscar-winning screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love), who infuse the tragic tale of unrequited romance with a hip attitude and plenty of visual flair.
The structure is that of a classic love triangle among aristocrats in 19th century Russia, where Anna (Keira Knightley) is feeling an emotional disconnect in her marriage to the affluent St. Petersburg politician Karenin (Jude Law).
Instead, she finds her wandering eyes drawn to the dashing Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a young military officer she meets at a train station and later dances with at a high-society ball. Their subsequent affair has its repercussions, however, especially when Karenin discovers the truth and the adulterous lovers are ostracized while their commitment is tested. Meanwhile, various subplots reveal romantic difficulties involving acquaintances on all sides.
Perhaps most ambitiously, the filmmakers choose to stage much of the action theatrically, suggesting both literally and figuratively that the romantic drama at its center is a show for public display among citizens at the time.
Such a confined interpretation almost feels like a gimmick, however, considering the central romance is so stuffy and melodramatic. The script thrusts Wright into the role of puppeteer and tries to turn Anna – who might be either conflicted or selfish – into some sort of contemporary feminist heroine amid a muddled sociopolitical backdrop.
Still, Wright and Knightley feel right at home in these sorts of costume dramas (following collaborations on Pride and Prejudice and Atonement), and bring out the best in one another.
It’s a handsomely mounted adaptation that captures its bleak wintry setting, with lush cinematography by Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers) and sumptuous costumes by Jacqueline Durran (Pride and Prejudice).
The film deserves credit for offering a fresh yet faithful rendition of classically complex material, but the narrative treatment feels more calculated than genuinely passionate, and doesn’t resonate emotionally enough to make it feel like more than just an artistic experiment.
Rated R, 130 minutes.