Director Joe Wright’s new take on “Anna Karenina,” Leo Tolstoy’s romantic tale of infidelity, is a shockingly staid affair. And that’s hard to pull off because, after all, Anna Karenina is one of literature’s most seductive adulteresses.
Instead, Keira Knightley — Wright’s go-to actress — plays her as one of the most overwrought tragic heroines time has known. She also possesses zero chemistry with her supposedly dashing and irresistible lover, Count Vronsky, played by a wooden Aaron Taylor-Johnson from “Kick-Ass.” He’s a young army officer; she’s high society. You’re supposed to believe the attraction is instant from the moment they meet in a Moscow train station. You’re supposed to go along for the ride, as their lust swells to unquenchable carnal heights. Cue the loosening corset, as both let desire trump dignity. But don’t go expecting any big passionate (or guilty pleasure) pay offs, a la Diane Lane in “Unfaithful.” When Anna and Vronsky finally do the deed, it’s one of the dumbest displays of ecstasy I’ve seen in a while — and it’s shot mostly from the neck up. It’s laughable. And, for anyone who cares, Knightley shows hardly any skin, but we’re “treated” to Taylor-Johnson’s backside in a post-coital moment. Bum deal, I say.
Knightley (“Atonement” and “Pride & Prejudice” with Wright) can rock a corset and period gown, really like no other. She is quite breathtaking. Beyond style, Wright — working from a script written by Academy Award-winner Tom Stoppard (“Shakespeare in Love”) — buries his cast and Tolstoy’s story under a two-hour-plus costume party.
For his part, Stoppard gets the gist of the narrative’s three-tiered love (vs. lust) story. And he gets right the dynamic on romantic love versus practical love. Mainly, the script centers on Anna — a society woman who seemingly has the perfect life with a well-respected husband of nine years, Karenin (a perfectly pragmatic Jude Law), a huge home, an adoring son and closet full of stunning gowns.
Soon enough, Anna realizes how stale her own union has become when she meets Vronsky while on a visit to save her philandering brother’s (Matthew Macfadyen, the best thing in the movie) crumbling marriage to Dolly (Kelly Macdonald, “Boardwalk Empire”). Oh the irony!
And just so you don’t leave the theater with a bitter taste about marriage, there’s a rather sweet side to the movie, as the overly sensitive Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) falls for Dolly’s younger sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander). Theirs is a love that took a while to blossom, but it grows to be true.
In the early moments of the film, while talking about the indiscretion of Anna’s brother, Karenin wisely warns: “Sin has a price.” That sets the ball in play, as we watch Anna be emotionally seduced by a younger man, grow distant from her son and be shunned from Imperial Russian society. It’s frustrating to watch because as scandalous and salacious as it was, the movie is just so tedious that you don’t care.
Page 2 of 2 - At least the costumes and Wright’s inventive transitions from scene to scene (he set it up like a stage show, shading the lines between stage and screen) kept me from succumbing to boredom.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com.