Rated R for some sexual content and brief violence.
Director Joe Wright's new version of "Anna Karenina" — at least the 13th film adaptation of the novel since 1914 — transforms Leo Tolstoy's 900-page doorstop of a 19th-century Russian masterpiece into something that is intended to be playful and light on its feet, for all its heavy themes of adultery and dishonor (not to mention the literal weight of its lavish period costumes).
Wright's previous movies include respectful and successful adaptations of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," a great book, and Ian McEwan's "Atonement," at least a good book. Those movies attempted to faithfully reproduce the visions of the novels' authors, but — perhaps because "Karenina" has been dramatized so many times before — the director takes an experimental and highly stylized approach to Tolstoy.
Most of the movie is staged in what appears to be the interior of a seatless theater, complete with catwalks, scenic flats that can be raised and lowered, painted curtain backdrops, and so on, to represent the salons, ballrooms, tea rooms and other haunts of upper-crust Moscow and St. Petersburg. The behavior of the characters who inhabit this space is similarly stagy.
Unlike the upcoming Victor Hugo adaptation, "Les Miserables," "Anna Karenina" is no musical, but the action often is choreographed as if it were. Clerks stamp papers in a syncopated rhythm, and aristocrats swirl from room to room while attendants cater to their needs and stagehands rearrange the walls in what, essentially, are dance pieces. The dance becomes literal during a ballroom sequence in which the secondary performers freeze and seem to vanish while Wright keeps his camera focused on the scandalous pas de deux of the married Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) and the dashing cavalry officer who becomes her lover, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
The message, of course, is that life among the tsarist Russian elite was theatrical and artificial — a world of performance in which the "players" risked censure or worse if they slipped outside their scripted social roles. But once we get this message (which happens immediately), what then?
Even a horse race is presented indoors, with the horses racing from one side of the stage to the next; but this is a movie, not a stage play, so why deny the viewer the pleasure of a well-shot horse race? To make the point that Russian society wants to deny Anna her pleasure, too? In fact, the horse race is accomplished with digital trickery, complete with a violent fall from the stage, so the theater conceit doesn't really hold up; what's more, Wright's camera is as busy and unfettered as in any of his films. Why insist on theatrical boundaries as a concept but then shoot the action with the freedom of film?
Even so, one can't help but admire the precision of the often long and complicated takes and the dedication of the performers to this vision of "Anna Karenina." It's an extraordinarily impressive undertaking, but it left me unamused and unmoved and frankly uninterested in Anna's plight. A key problem is that Anna and the handsome but shallow Vronsky, as presented here, aren't as entertaining as supporting characters including Anna's roguish brother, Stiva (a twinkle-eyed Matthew Macfadyen); the lovestruck and honest Konstantin (Domhnall Gleeson), whose rural retreat gives Wright an excuse to shoot outdoors and on location (to contrast the "authenticity" of the peasant world with the artifice of the nobility); and Anna's pious, dutiful and supposedly dull husband, played with such sympathy by Jude Law that one longs to see the story through his eyes instead of Anna's. Yes, the film is a wonder of production design and actorly stamina, but after awhile, as far as I was concerned, that train couldn't come fast enough.
NOTE: "A Taste of the Vine," a wine-tasting fundraiser for Literacy Mid-South, will be held from 6-8 p.m. Friday at the Malco Ridgeway Four in connection with the opening night of "Anna Karenina," which is playing exclusively at the Ridgeway, and which is based on a great work of literature (hence the Literacy beneficiary). Admission to the wine-tasting is $10.