What It's About
Oh look, it's 1870s imperial Russia and the emperor has no clothes! This latest adaptation of "Anna Karenina," Leo Tolstoy's 1,000-page novel, is a weirdly stylized, overly theatrical film that looks like a Vanity Fair magazine spread and has as much heft as hair gel.
Emphasizing Shakespeare's observation that "all the world's a stage," director Joe Wright ("Atonement") has set this 19th-century tale of adulterous love and its consequences primarily in an actual theater with ornate backdrops. The fancy high society folks dance at elaborate balls and attend grand operas while the grimy peasants move scenery and act as stage hands. It's a conceit that takes getting used to, and borders on pretention.
You either accept this contrivance, or you view it coldly from a distance, for its melodrama seems forced, and takes a backseat to the grandiose set design. Sometimes, you glimpse a real outdoors with snow-covered fields, but other times, you get a toy train covered with fake snow. Sadly, this is not remotely in the same league as "Doctor Zhivago," not even close.
The bony Keira Knightley ("Pride and Prejudice") looks lovely in her sumptuous ballgowns, but at 26, lacks depth as Anna, a well-heeled woman who chooses her young lover (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) over her 8-year-old son and a passionless marriage to a dull government official Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), thus suffering severely for that choice. That sets in motion a scandal that she can't overcome. As she's condemned by society and ostracized by her family, she's all teeth and histrionics. By the final act, as she petulantly unravels, the tragic ending can't come soon enough.
The film may seem to drag on interminably because both Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson ("Savages"), cast as Vronsky, the dashing cavalry officer Anna falls for, are not suited for these roles. They don't have much chemistry together so the mad passionate affair rings hollow, especially coming across as self-absorbed and a wee immature. Johnson, who has been good in a number of roles since "Kick-Ass," plays the soldier somewhat arrogantly and cavalier --plus he's only 22, again too young. In addition, they dyed his hair blond and a thin brown mustache that seems an odd choice. This romantic pair is supposed to be sympathetic -- but not giving us a reason to care is the movie's epic fail.
Faring better is Jude Law ("Sherlock Holmes") as the cuckolded husband. Dutiful and stoic, he's the one evoking sympathy. Go figure.
The second parallel story, that of landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) smitten with sweet Kitty (Alicia Vikander, of 'A Royal Affair"), is far more interesting and is the film's saving grace.
What Doesn't Work
Trying something new, especially bold and different, should be applauded -- if it's the right vehicle, such as Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge" in 2000. But this is a fallen souffle, a miscalculation like Terry Gilliam's overwrought "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassas." This Russian classic has been made into umpteen movies, including Greta Garbo in 1935 and Vivien Leigh in 1948 as the title character, and those past works realized you need some heavyweight talent in these roles -- if you're going to stage it in 2012. If you want to create a theatrical production, let the Royal Shakespeare Company or the Royal National Theatre in London have a go at it, not stiffly film it as a glossy artificial costume drama.
Director: Joe Wright
Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson
Rated: R for some sensuality and violence