“For all the pretty sound and pictures, the period piece is of little consequence,” I wrote of director Joe Wright’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in 2005. I found his Atonement (also based on a novel) in 2007 equally overwrought. His version of Leo Tolstoy’s distinctly Russian Anna Karenina, set in late-19th-century Russia’s aristocracy, when Anna has an unforgettable affair with the irresistible Count Vronsky, is more of the same but worse.
Wright, like the visually-driven Tim Burton, puts style over substance and this picture ups the ante. Re-teaming with his favored cast and crew, including composer Dario Marianelli and actress Keira Knightley, who hasn’t been decent in a serious movie since the delightful Bend It Like Beckham, he inserts a framing device that accentuates the film’s flaws. The story, about a miserable woman in a miserable life, concerns forgiveness. Though I have not read the novel, I have seen previous adaptations and I have to admit that while the theme is monstrous, the plot is involving. But Wright puts the aristocratic saga in the context of an inexplicable stage play. Everyone is literally moving on and offstage, which merges with reality in a way that makes no sense.
What the framing does is heighten one’s awareness of the cast’s deficiencies. Ms. Knightley is not a strong actress – she mugs – and opposite her as Vronsky is a young actor (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who is too foppish in his pretty blond curls and deep-set eyes to sustain interest, let alone a lifelong bond for which she risks everything including her beloved child. The pair have zero chemistry. They must contend with what others think of their brazen love affair, which begins with love at first sight on a train, and that includes the other who is her husband, Karenin, played by Jude Law in his best role since he broke your heart in Gattaca. He almost does, here, too, portraying the duty-bound fundamental religionist as a more sympathetic figure who has been wronged by his disloyal wife.
Anna is more conflicted than that, really, but Tom Stoppard’s screenplay leaves a lot of loose ends and the visual flourishes – my favorite segment features railway sparks, a blade, frost and utter blackness – distract the luxurious movie from its story and render Anna Karenina confusing, misleading and ultimately uninteresting. During the ballroom scene, for instance, where the core conflict is established – that young nubile Kitty’s adoration for Vronsky is jilted by the count’s love for Anna – there is more hand and arm gesturing than dancing, with Knightley and cast moving like something out of Madonna’s “Vogue” video. It ruins the romance and sets the plot off in an aimless direction. Without ignition of Vronsky and Anna, there is nothing but costume, hair and makeup and that incessant stage gimmick. So the movie’s style reminds us that everyone is playacting.
Yet at the root of Anna Karenina is a perfectly conceived story of love, duty, forgiveness and death – especially death and in the most intriguing way – with the idea that we must kill that which we love or be totally faithful to it without question, doubt or passion. Love never lives, really, in this movie. But Joe Wright and company fail to get even that message across. Ms. Knightley as Anna is supposed to be bewitching, and this, too, presents a problem. Her love for Vronsky is her escape – her one way out – from a traditional marriage with nothing to nourish her. By making Anna, not Vronsky, the object of desire, Wright and Stoppard invert the story and reverse the effects. When Anna comes undone, we’re still puzzling over what Vronsky saw in her (also her in him) at all. This 21st century Anna Karenina has fine moments, and it recreates that intense feeling of despair that one is alone in the world. Their time together briefly evokes the beauty of David Lean’s Varykino in his 1965 adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. The story’s counterpoint, that romantic love ought to be savored with “the one person with which to fulfill our humanness”, is an elevated thought that unfortunately stands alone in a mediocre movie.