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In this bold but empty imagining of Anna Karenina, director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) sets the action mostly within the walls of a theatre, swooshing his actors from center stage to greasepaint-slicked backstage and up into the busy rafters: This world is, quite literally, all a stage. It’s a neat conceptual trick that elucidates the stark class contrasts of imperialist Russia, in which the aristocrats are the main players and the helpmeets rush in from the wings, and illustrates the performative demands of a society tightly cloistered and cricketing with gossip. But parse too closely the space between “neat” and “conceptual” and “trick,” and there’s little emotional truck to all the elaborate conceit.
The film opens on a proscenium stage, with bundled chairs lining the sides of the auditorium (which raises the question: Is the show just beginning, or already packed in? It’s not like we don’t know where this is going – or did you miss that particular train as a young reader?). At curtain raise, Anna’s philandering brother, Oblonsky (Macfadyen, marvelous as a dissipated, dim-bulb Falstaff), is prostrate in a chair, awaiting a close shave from a manservant who moves like a balletic matador. In fact, everyone here moves like a dancer – from servant to tippy-toe socialite – and the choreography of both people and camera is exquisite.
The opening sequence darts around the set in seamless but frantic sweeps, in the same abridged, burlesque whip and quip of Baz Luhrmann, or maybe one of those one-man shows that render all of Shakespeare’s works in two hours or less. There is sedate wife and mother Anna (Knightley), limply married to the fly-right bureaucrat Karenin (Law) and embarking for Moscow to save her brother’s marriage to poor, put-upon Dolly (Macdonald). There is Dolly’s sweet sister Kitty (Vikander) rejecting a proposal of marriage from honorable but unsexy Levin (Gleeson) in hopes of another offer from that bright, shiny bauble, the Count Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson). And there is the first acquaintance of doomed Vronsky and Anna, who tumble into an erotic liaison that will both ignite and ruin her.
There is so much to compact here, and – forgive the schoolmarm aside – if you haven’t yet enjoyed the source novel, then you should right now stop reading this and start reading that, because it truly is a transformative thing, and the complexity of Tolstoy’s vision is only just skimmed here. Tom Stoppard’s script, which has no shortage of heart-stopping one-liners that succinctly distill many of Tolstoy’s big ideas, nonetheless gives short shrift to Levin. (Yes, there is only so much talk of agrarianism you can put into a 21st century picture show, but still: There’s little evidence here of the spiritual consideration Tolstoy embedded into an autobiographically close character.) Wright and Stoppard’s version doesn’t discard Levin altogether, but it poorly twines the stories of twin protagonists Anna and Levin, and Gleeson’s Levin never resonates as much more than a wet-eyed fusspot with conditioner-silked locks. Even with scythe in hand, there’s no trace of callus on the conflicted landlord, or true conviction regarding his ambivalence over his birthright.
The focus, then, is on Anna and Vronsky, with the uncharacteristically sympathetic Karenin hovering in the shade of their spotlight. It’s not an easy part, that of Anna’s cuckolded husband, but Law finds a way to quietly project the palpable ache in the either/or war between his heart and his mind – an ache the central lovers only play-act at. Twenty years ago, Law would have made a hell of a Vronksy: One remembers with a rueful sigh the golden child of The Talented Mr. Ripley and then sours into a frown at the Vronksy we’re left with. Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) gets at the glibness of the young officer and seducer, but hardly hints at the irresistible magnetism that first raised Anna’s eyebrow.
Early in the film, Wright circles a child’s toy train around a track, then cuts to a railcar interior set. The transition – from clear artifice to gentler artifice suddenly populated with actors – is not unlike zooming into a dollhouse to discover real live human beings roaming the rooms. One can extravagantly admire the effort without ever once believing those humans are doing anything more than striking a pose, going through the paces of an especially ambitious puppet master. There’s no denying the dazzling effect, but a fireworks sequence midfilm only underscores the sad fact that there’s no lasting illumination here, only the fast-burn spitzing of bang snaps.