Review

'Anna Karenina' looks good but lacks the right emotions

Latest version of ‘Anna Karenina’ looks good but feels flat

ltoppman@charlotteobserver.comNovember 29, 2012 

  • Anna Karenina C+ Cast: Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jude Law, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander Director: Joe Wright Website: www.focusfeatures.com/Anna_Karenina Length: 2 hours, 10 minutes Rating: R (violence, sexuality)

“Every happy family is alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

With that famous opening, Leo Tolstoy set the stage for all that would happen in “Anna Karenina” – and, unknowingly, pinpointed what is wrong with the film version written by Tom Stoppard and directed by Joe Wright.

The emotional triangle formed by willful Anna, her husband Karenin and seductive Count Vronsky is generic. The arc of the 800-page novel, crammed into 130 minutes, becomes a line as flat as the heart monitor of a dead patient. A story that ought to possess the mad grandeur of an opera acquires the tedious regularity of soap opera.

Wright and Stoppard, aware of the crippling handicap of brevity, do what they can to jolt life into the tale.

They set much of the action in an abandoned theater, using as their excuse a line in the novel saying 19th-century Russian aristocrats behaved as if on a stage. This visually lively if unsophisticated metaphor becomes clunky whenever characters go outdoors for an expanded scene in the countryside: Life out in nature is so real, you see, while life in society is artificial.

Wright cleverly interweaves miniatures with larger props and, occasionally, actual objects: The train crucial to the story is first seen as a puffing toy, then as a model intentionally coated in fake snow, and finally as a genuinely powerful locomotive.

The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, an Oscar nominee for Wright’s “Atonement,” can be gritty or gorgeous, flattering or cruel. Composer Dario Marinelli, who earned his Oscar for “Atonement,” steals cleverly from Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev and adds some sweeping waltzes of his own. The film looks and sounds just as it should, with costumes and makeup and sets all fitting beautifully into place.

So why does it feel so barren? Partly because it’s diffuse: Stoppard and Wright cram in all of Tolstoy’s major supporting characters, who become no more than guests stopping off at a dull party.

We never get to know Anna’s philandering brother (Matthew Macfadyen), her much-abused sister-in-law (Kelly MacDonald) or the younger princess Anna envies because she’s still free to choose a man (Alicia Vikander). Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), the landowner Tolstoy inserted to air his views about the responsibility of Russian nobles toward the poor, now seems especially tangential.

The larger problem is inertia at the core. If the formal, inflexible Karenin (Jude Law) has more charisma than the dashing Vronsky, something has gone terribly wrong. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who wears a consistently vapid expression to go with his little pimp’s mustache, wouldn’t induce this woman to think about leaving her family for a quickie, let alone a lifetime.

Wright and Keira Knightley collaborated triumphantly on “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement,” and he may believe she can do anything as a leading lady. But Anna is beyond her, at least at 27. Where we ought to see a soul-freezing sense of paralysis, followed by a torrent of passion for an inappropriate man, we get a generalized kind of melancholy and neediness suited to “Real Housewives of St. Petersburg.”

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