This Anna Karenina is staged (quite literally) within a grand, czarist Russian theater. The proscenium, the curtain, the box seats—all are quite visible and often part of the action. Painted backdrops fall from the sky. Sets are transformed in the blink of an eye with stagehands rushing props on and off screen. Characters wander from scene to scene, crossing backstage or lingering up in the catwalk. Occasionally, the action will spill out onto the floor of the theater, which is redressed as a ballroom or a frozen lake. Every once in a while, the conceit is dropped, and we get an actual on-location shoot. For the most part, though, the environment is flat, artificial and intentionally fake. It’s a bold and occasionally dazzling way to stage this sort of epic. Visually, it’s unlike Wright’s previous work and quite a departure for Tolstoy’s famously realist novel. Even the movements of the characters are as choreographed as a ballet. The whole thing looks like a mad, lushly artistic mashup between the Broadway-esque work of Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!) and the circus sideshow-inspired look of Tim Burton (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street).
The film never finds a compelling reason for Anna’s impulsive infidelity or for Vronsky’s sudden desire to give up womanizing. Their liaison feels more ill-advised than romantic, really. Then again, that’s probably the point. Jealousy and hypocrisy are as much motifs here as carnal desire and passion. Knightley does a credible job as our conflicted heroine, though your appreciation of her acting will depend largely on your preconceptions of her. Some folks like her work. Others are tired of seeing the poor girl weeping in yet another corset. Taylor-Johnson, meanwhile—a zesty surprise in 2010’s Kick-Ass—lacks a certain gravitas opposite Knightley’s lachrymose sincerity. His Vronsky feels too insubstantial to make for a threatening lothario. To be fair, the drama of their situation is undone ever so slightly by the film’s hyper-theatrical treatment. Since it’s reiterated in nearly every shot that these are actors in a stagebound drama, the characters remain at arm’s length. It’s harder to get inside their emotions with so much artifice on display.
While the romance of the piece may seem flimsy, the tragedy of Anna’s choices are not. Here, the film nails it, driving home Tolstoy’s point with verve. Is she the victim of a misogynist social order or is she an insufferably selfish wench? Feel free to discuss amongst yourselves. For all the conceptual razzle-dazzle on display, the blunt force of Tolstoy’s story remains. In this sense, Anna Karenina simply puts a pretty new face on Tolstoy’s timeless themes. Stunningly beautiful yet overly designed, forcefully acted yet melodramatic, this Anna Karenina is probably best appreciated by those audience members who actually cracked open that Penguin Classics version of the tale they bought in college. As an introduction to one of the great works of literature, 2012’s Anna Karenina is too self-centered and showy. As a rumination on some classic literary themes, it’s ambitious, fanciful and always one step ahead of upstaging itself.