10:59 AM EST, November 15, 2012
Like most alleged love-it-or-hate-it propositions, the new film version of "Anna Karenina" is neither. Rather, it's a half-success — a baldly conceptual response to the Leo Tolstoy novel, with a heavy theatrical framework placed around the narrative of girl meets boy, followed by girl meets train.
Much of this "Anna Karenina" takes place inside a 19th-century Russian playhouse, on the stage itself, in the wings, up in the fly loft above the stage, in the auditorium itself. The notion is to examine Tolstoy's theatrically extravagant characters so that they all appear to be starring in separate and gradually intersecting operas.
Director Joe Wright's treatment of Anna, her officious pill of a husband and her desperate love affair with a caddish cavalry officer locates the Moscow and St. Petersburg high society scenes in and around the old playhouse, with fanciful sets aiding the storyline. (For the steeplechase scene, in which the attraction between Anna and Vronsky is detected by Anna's husband, charming 2-D horses trot across the stage, in effect braying: "It's only a play!")
Then, when "Anna Karenina" retreats to a country estate or some other rural setting, Wright pulls in another style entirely, that of realistic scenery and atmosphere.
Wright directed "Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement," and works here from an adaptation by Tom Stoppard, a world-class wit and a frequent collaborator with various deceased Russian authors. The actors are encouraged by Wright, and by Stoppard's text, to alternate currents quickly between high comedy and piercing drama. Keira Knightley's Anna, who makes a very good case for the female fashions of the day, suggests a society woman both pampered and suffocated. Jude Law, as her steely but heartbroken cuckold of a husband, provides the film with its strongest emotional connection to the audience. Other players (such as Matthew Macfadyen, as the philandering Prince Oblonsky) are there for dashes of brio and comic zest. "Paperwork is the soul of Russia!" Oblonsky announces.
Maybe so, but theatrics are the heart of this "Anna Karenina." Now and then, in clever and visually enveloping ways, Wright's two realities blend together seamlessly, and the movie becomes more than a concept. My resistance to much of "Anna Karenina" has to do with Wright's antsy quality as a director, which wasn't the case with either "Pride & Prejudice" or "Atonement." At its most frantic the cutting and staging here veers perilously close to Baz Luhrmann "Moulin Rouge!" territory for comfort. Or for Tolstoy. I'd rather have seen Wright's carefully elaborated production on a stage, instead of in a movie partly on a stage. See it for yourself. You may fall under the intended spell. Or you may voice an opinion very much like Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Vronsky, who tells Anna early on: "I'm getting out of this operetta and going home."
'Anna Karenina' -- 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for some sexuality and violence)
Running time: 2:10
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC