With numerous adaptations of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina already dotting the cinematic timeline, director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard can at least be considered justified in wanting to stir the pot with this newest rendition of the titular adulteress' tragic fall from grace. Yet in attempting to strip the romance down to its emotional essence, their bold experiment misses the mark; a dazzling yet seemingly arbitrary exercise in stylization.
In 1870s tzarist Russia, Anna (Keira Knightley) is afforded all the luxuries and status that her marriage to Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) allows. That means lavish balls, dinners, theatre outings, the works. But when her eye catches the dashing regiment officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), her hidden desires prove too tempting to ignore. We watch as she destroys herself for forbidden love, spiraling from envied socialite to reviled pariah.
Collaborating with much of the same crew with whom he made Atonement, Wright certainly doesn't hold back on visual panache. The rural exteriors are depicted with spacious vistas recalling Doctor Zhivago, but the vast majority of the story is presented as unfolding within a 19th century play house. While this does set the stage (quite literally) for a swirling pageant of ornate sets and costumes, all exquisitely designed by Sarah Greenwood and Jacqueline Durran respectively, it can't help but impose a feeling of claustrophobia upon what I can only assume is supposed to be a ravishing love story. It may have been the filmmakers' hope that this would add intimacy, but the effect is more stifling than anything else. The performances, while finely calibrated (especially those by Knightley and Law), do come off as a bit chilly. Thank heavens Dario Marianelli's lovely score is able to breath some feeling into the picture.
To an extent, it's hard not to commend Wright and Stoppard for daring to revitalize old material with such an artistic risk. But ultimately, it has to be conceded that this particular gamble didn't quite pay off.
**1/2 out of ****