With its snowy landscapes, sumptuous costumes and old-world aura, Anna Karenina is as pretty as a holiday window – and just about as lively and surprising. Placing Tolstoy’s enduring story of a married woman’s deadly, passionate infidelity in a theatrical setting – nearly all the action takes place in a theater -- is a disappointing gamble by the director Joe Wright, even with a screenplay by the usually incomparable Tom Stoppard.
Keira Knightley looks exquisite and affects the right languor as the pampered Anna, married to the prim, self-important, endlessly dull Karenin, who is wonderfully played against type by Jude Law. Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Anna’s young lover, Vronsky, is another matter.
He arrives looking like a cartoon cad, with golden curls and the twirled moustache of a villain. Even when he truly falls in love with Anna – however temporary that may be – he can never shake the one-dimensional aspect. Worse, Knightley and Taylor-Johnson are so cold together we never believe there is spark of attraction between Anna and Vronsky. Their affair seems to result from her boredom, which makes the character more Emma Bovary than Anna Karenina. And it makes her mad decision to leave her husband and son, throwing everything to the wind for love – and of course throwing herself under that train -- seem incomprehensible.
As in his other earnest, unexciting adaptations, Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, Wright shows he is serious about literature without necessarily being astute about its transformation. This film’s theatrical conceit, which Wright suggested to Stoppard, is lethal. Placing the action within the walls of a theater -- it isn’t all on stage; it is simply placed in an artificial, theatrical context – already distances the characters from reality. Add the failed performances, and Anna and Vronsky are so doll-like and unemotional they might as well be animatronic.
Many moments do come to life, but they are all driven by secondary characters. In addition to Law, there is Matthew Macfadyen’s delicious comic performance as Anna’s haplessly adulterous brother, Oblonsky. And Domhnall Gleeson nearly steals the film as Oblonsky’s idealistic friend from the country, Levin. That character is the problematic, lagging part of Tolstoy’s novel, but his plot works in the film because his episodes are naturalistic, his country scenes the only ones set outside the theater. You might extrapolate that Levin represents salt-of-the-earth naturalism and Anna and her social set the stifling, hot-house dead end of imperial Russia – and that dichotomy also pinpoints the simplistic nature of Wright’s theatrical approach, which in the end seems more a stunt than an inspiration.
There is a lot to dazzle and distract the eye, including costume designer Jacqueline Durran’s glamorous dresses and bright military uniforms. Anna’s Chanel jewels are so exquisite they almost overwhelm every other beautiful thing, including Knightley, who was so much more effective as an unhappy, faithless wife in The Duchess. There are horses racing across the stage; there are dances; there just isn’t much passion.
Early in the film, in one of the epigrammatic lines of dialogue that run through it like annoying bits of Morse code, Levin’s disreputable brother tells him “Romantic love will be the last delusion of the old order.” He may be right, but in order to grapple with that idea we first have to believe that Anna and Vronsky’s romance is warmer than those snowy Russian vistas.