Toward the end of his life, Leo Tolstoy turned away from artifice, including the fiction of his own novels. It stands to reason, then, that he would find the latest adaptation of Anna Kareninaespecially disappointing. Told partly as a staged production (call it “Imperial Russia 1874”), director Joe Wright’s interpretation emphasizes the staginess of the lives of privileged aristocrats—a version of the royalty-as-rock-stars device—and how the glare of this spotlight accelerates the disintegration of Anna (Keira Knightley), a woman who sacrifices everything for love. There are beautiful interludes in this concept, but since the entire film is visually ravishing, they don’t matter. And more often than not, the stage, whether it be the ballrooms of high society or the opulent manor that Anna shares with her bureaucrat husband (Jude Law), acts as a gimmick: a setting and nothing more for sumptuous a misé-en-scene that gets in the way of the action.
And though the film is in constant, elegant motion, it seems as though not much really happens, and not just because Tolstoy’s dialogue has been pared (by playwright Tom Stoppard) to the barest essentials. It’s all about the spectacle, such as the first dance between Anna and rich, handsome cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson); or Oblonsky (Matthew MacFaydyn) blithely returning home to his wife Dolly (Kelly MacDonald) after a scandalous affair; or Vronsky’s accident during a horse race. The race occurs onstage, as a clunky metaphor for how the men compete for the ladies’ favor, and yes, it’s disastrously silly. Diminished in all this stagecraft is that Anna herself is the spectacle of society, once her affair with Vronsky becomes common knowledge.
Back to that first dance, which is, like all of the lovers’ encounters, both sweeping and annoying. Anna wears a black gown with silver jewelry, while Vronsky’s jilted amour, Kitty (Alicia Vikander), is a vision in white with pink ribbons (black swan white swan). Anna and Vronsky fall in love while waltzing, their arms and hands plaiting and undulating. As the mood becomes delirious, the other dancers freeze like statues—because Anna and Vronsky exist only for each other, an emotional intoxication expressed gloriously by the brilliant dance choreography. It’s not the only time the other characters are flash frozen, as Wright piles on the symbolism until the floorboards almost groan under the weight of the obvious.
This is Knightley’s third film with Wright, after Atonement and Pride & Prejudice; and she is no more memorable than in the previous films. All the leads are competent though not compelling, with the most incisive moments coming from three actresses, all with experience in period dramas, in small roles. They are Olivia Williams as Vronsky’s haughty mother, Michelle Dockery as an even haughtier princess, and Ruth Wilson as decadent Princess Betsy. These performances are like finely etched cameos standing out from a sea of silks and satins.
Wright’s mannered flourishes are effective though unimaginative, while the juxtaposition of high society with the naturalistic cinematography of farm life—as Levin (Domhnall Gleson) returns to the countryside with a broken heart—comes across as both welcome relief from the contrived art direction and a lack of bravura on the director’s part for not keeping it all of a piece, despite the noticeable influence of Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love.
In between salon and farm is the repeated image of a train pulling into the station pushing a ton of snow in front of the engine. It’s an apt one, though probably not for the reason that Wright intended.