By JAMES DAWSON
Front Row Features Film Critic
Director Joe Wright’s audaciously theatrical take on “Anna Karenina” turns what William Faulkner regarded as the best novel ever written into a flamboyantly Baz Luhrmann-esque “Moulin Russia.” Although there are no songs, nearly every scene could be the setting for a decadently flashy Broadway-goes-Vegas production number. That’s likely to divide audiences, some of whom will be enchanted by the very lushness that others will regard as outrageously garish, but there’s no denying that this cinematic candy box is visually unforgettable.
Adapted by knighted playwright Tom Stoppard, whose film credits include the screenplays for “Shakespeare in Love,” “Empire of the Sun” and “Brazil,” “Anna Karenina” transitions between scenes performed on theater stages and those that take place in real-world locations, sometimes within the same shot. The curtain literally rises on an ostentatiously “Sweeney Todd”-ish shaving scene in 1874 imperial Russia, with onstage musicians providing the film’s score. The camera then travels around the action and even backstage, emphasizing the movie’s artificiality as much as its art.
Keira Knightley stars as Anna, who risks her social position and family by having an affair with almost comically dashing cavalry officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, looking like a buffer and more restrained Gene Wilder). Anna’s husband is the proper, refined and respected government official Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), who is so rigidly low-key that even his mortally wounded rage never rises much above the level of disappointed irritation.
“Anna Karenina” is Knightley’s third appearance in a Wright film, following 2007’s “Atonement” and 2005’s “Pride & Prejudice.” She gives Anna an attitude of entitled and spoiled selfishness that makes the character more interesting than a mere bored aristocrat following her wayward heart. Her dialogue is all declarations, but her phoniness is fascinating. More delusional than knowingly self-destructive, Anna actually appears to believe that she will be able to have her carnal cake and eat it, too. When she discovers that society and her spouse are not as tolerant of her adulterous whims as she would prefer, she becomes even more determined to “flaunt herself like a slut,” as one offended opera-goer puts it.
Law is excellent as Anna’s constricted and cuckolded better half, whose sense of decorum is constantly at war with his foolishly forgiving nature. Matthew Macfadyen (who starred opposite Knightley in “Pride & Prejudice”) is amusing as Anna’s gregarious brother, who shamelessly cheats on long-suffering wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). In a subplot that reverse-mirrors Anna’s amorous downfall with a more uplifting romance, Anna’s initially shallow friend Princess Kitty (Alicia Vikander) comes to appreciate the sincere charms of landowner Kostya Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a would-be man of the people. Where love ruins Anna, it transforms Kitty into a virtual saint.
Wright’s imaginative camerawork and the elegantly fantastic sets by production designer Sarah Greenwood (“Sherlock Holmes”) are the real stars of this show. A toy train becomes a steaming locomotive in an elaborate station, horses race thunderingly and impossibly across a theater stage and a luxurious ballroom is a fairy-tale fantasy of disappearing dancers. Sliding painted backdrops alternate with outdoor snow and countryside scenes, until nature and art eventually merge in a vacated theater filled with tall grass.
During a pastoral picnic that’s as perfume-commercial picturesque as everything else in the film, Anna meaningfully remarks, “I’m damned.” Vronsky moonily replies, “I’m blessed.” They then share a close-up French kiss that’s shamelessly brazen yet strangely endearing, which pretty much sums up the movie as a whole.