Oh, Anna Karenina, what have they done to you? It's been a long while since we've visited, yes, but when last we met I don't recall noticing you were so dead behind the eyes, so light with empty melodrama, so prone to sudden bursts of choreographed meandering. Was it always so? Were your pages, were your lineages and intricate relationships always so black and white? So straight forward? So easily sketched and outlined? Could you always be diluted to a series of long takes and stage directions? Were you always missing a heart, or have they pulled it out of you? Have they sucked the marrow from your bones and left your skeleton a mere set of connected husks? A propped up clothes hanger for too many bustled gowns?
Let's go with the latter. Anna Karenina's latest adaptation is muddled, beautiful dreck flawed in such a complicated manner it's bound to prove divisive. Joe Wright, who has previously displayed a deft hand in the art of period piece adaptation (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) reunites with Keira Knightley and immediately succumbs to indulgent machinations and supremely bland bouts of lead heavy fancy. Knightley plays Anna, the lovely young aristocrat who steps out on her young son and her too 'good' husband Karenin (Jude Law) and enters into a heated love affair with the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Johnson), who happens to be the object of her sister-in-law's (Kelly MacDonald (what are you doing here?)) sister's deep affection. In doing so she parallels the sins of her brother (Matthew Macfadyen), though naturally as she is a woman her indiscretions find her guilty and all but exiled from polite society. It's big time scandal in 19th century Russia, and in presenting the convoluted workings of Anna's poor decision making, the film adopts a curiously odd device.
The adaptation is penned by playwright Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love), and he has chosen to stage the sweeping emotional sprawl of the novel on and around a, um, literal stage. The effect is at first arresting, and the first 30 minutes or so unfold in a hypnotic manipulation of sets, props, and human beings all engaged in the same elegant choreography. Love and passion in Anna Karenina occur, for awhile, in time and in step. The characters are engaged in a heavy-handed dance of metatheatrical manners until the point that they break from the expected norm and move freely outside of the confines of their class. It's a bold experiment, but a rather pretentious means of illustrating the artificiality of the upper class. It also, of course, lays terrible waste to the dimension and depth of Tolstoy's novel.
There are points where Stoppard's methods seem to clash against Wright's own directorial predilections. The stage is simply too gimmicky to sustain a drama of this size, and while the departures from it may have metaphorical significance, they begin to read as a cinematic giving up to the point that returns to the stage seem almost present in the name of an arresting image instead of a real narrative device. As ambitious as the idea is, I found myself thinking I'd be far more interested in a straight telling from this particular director. Knightley makes a stunning Anna and the film is so gorgeously shot and costumed that the fact it has little more than a shoddy soap opera episode for a plot is nearly as much of a tragedy as Anna's own famed end. Anna Karenina is so busy changing clothes and waltzing with scandal that it fails, almost completely, to develop its characters. Ultimately, the film is a failed experiment; a tediously silly piece of work that's exhausting without reason.