Eschewing the classical realism that’s characterized most adaptations of Tolstoy’s source novel, helmer Joe Wright makes the generally inspired decision to stylize his dark, expressionist take on “Anna Karenina.” Setting most of the action in a mocked-up theater emphasizes the performance aspects of the characters’ behavior, a strategy enhanced by lead thesp Keira Knightley’s willingness to let her neurotic Anna appear less sympathetic than in previous incarnations. Bowing Sept. 7 in Blighty after its Toronto preem, “Anna” is well-placed to gain admiring awards looks, especially in craft categories, but its covert anti-romanticism may limit appeal beyond specialty auds.
Despite the film’s formal innovations, scripter Tom Stoppard’s screenplay tracks fairly closely to the narrative roadmap laid out in Tolstoy’s 1873 book. As the story opens, Anna Karenina (Knightley) is married to stiff Imperial minister Karenin (Jude Law), with whom she has a son, 8-year-old Serozha (Oskar McNamara). She’s seduced by handsome, young cavalry officer Prince Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and the two fall insanely in love. But the affair becomes a scandal in St. Petersburg society, and Karenin is forced to throw down an ultimatum: Anna can have Vronsky and live with him in exile but never see her son again, or stay with her husband and child if she obeys the rules of discretion that tacitly govern adulterous liaisons in high society.
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The main love-triangle plot is plaited with an account of gentleman farmer and Tolstoy-avatar Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a strand given short shrift in most other film versions. A friend of Anna’s brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen, offering amusing comic relief), Levin wishes to marry pretty Princess Kitty (Alicia Vikander, luminous), who refuses Levin at first, thinking herself in love with Vronsky. But Vronsky abandons Kitty as soon as he meets Anna, a transference neatly symbolized by the partner-swapping in the key ballroom scene, intricately choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui to make the dancers look like graceful automatons. Further down the line, Kitty and Levin discover a love that’s built of stronger, more hard-wearing stuff.
Wright’s decision to stage much of the aristocratic action in a stage-like space — complete with illusionistic drop curtains, catwalks and flies crowded with costumed stagehands — may confuse some auds. But it starts to make sense when an opened door unexpectedly reveals an actual landscape in scenes concerning Levin, the character least swayed by social norms. The courtly circles of St. Petersburg and Moscow, by contrast, are all about artifice, a perpetual theater that affords no real privacy, where everyone is always on view, like the doll houses that crop up frequently as motifs in the Oblonsky household. Even the trains, so crucial to the story, morph between obvious life-size mock-ups and toy-train sets, encrusted with fake powdery snow.
The title role offers one of the literary canon’s juiciest parts for femme thesps wishing to show off displays of passion, pride, guilt, madness and the ability to cry on cue. In its more than 25 film incarnations, the character has been played by Greta Garbo (in 1927 and ’35), Vivien Leigh (1948) and Soviet star Tatyana Samoilova (1967). Knightley has some mighty fancy court shoes to fill as she steps into the role.
Once again demonstrating that Wright knows how to get the best from Knightley (arguably her best work has been in “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement”), the actress’s angular beauty, declamatory line delivery and air of self-doubt all work in her favor here. Knightley’s Anna is a silly little flirt, playing at being a romantic heroine, but incapable of thinking through the endgame. Not unlike her turn as Sabina Spielrein in “A Dangerous Method,” this is a femme more tortured than pleasured by her own uncontrollable desires.
Taylor-Johnson squares up well with Knightley, initially swaggering around town like a randy “It Boy,” and then quietly terrified and out of his depth when her jealous rages blossom. But their mutual self-absorption makes them harder to root for as a couple, which diminishes the emotional wallop expected from the material. Making Anna and Vronsky less likable creates more sympathy for Levin, and humanizes Law’s frigid but still wounded Karenin, one of the thesp’s best efforts yet at roughing up his old pretty-boy image. Nevertheless, the pic feels unmistakably chilly, and not just because of all the snow.
Technically, however, this “Anna” is glorious, from Seamus McGarvey’s bejeweled lensing and Dario Marianelli’s delicate score, to Sarah Greenwood’s exquisite Faberge-egg production design. Layered thick with detail, her sets go hand-in-calf-leather-glove with Jacqueline Durran’s striking costumes, which blend period-accurate skirt silhouettes and haberdashery with 1950s bodice shapes and accents. There’s something particularly evocative in the way Anna’s outfits favor asymmetric detailing, lending her easily unbalanced personality a touch of 2012 modernity.