Is there something stopping Joe Wright from just making a musical? The production design in “Anna Karenina” is sumptuous in its color and glamour, but it’s out of place putting these Russian costume drama characters in an old-fashioned playhouse, a constant and misguided reminder that the whole world is a stage and we be but players on it.
Set in a rustic theater, Wright shuffles around sets and props on a single sound stage with balletic precision to transport Tolstoy’s sprawling novel to new places and move through the story at a brisk pace. It’s a daring approach, but Wright either needs to commit to his gimmick or drop it entirely. Seemingly at random we see a character in flowing evening ware clambering up back stage rafters. Sometimes a background figure will appear and perform a pirouette or strike up a tune on a tuba, and at other times the movie will forget the stage conceit altogether.
God knows this is a pretty film to look at, but boy is it garish. A curtain will rise and a multi-million dollar backdrop posing Anna as an angel in a Renaissance painting will be for nothing more than a momentary distraction. It indulges in undulating bodies during love-scenes and bathes its forbidden lovers in glaring doses of white. Wright’s long takes and wide shots are visually mystifying at times, but he chops the story up so much to account for the aesthetic.
It tells the story of Anna’s (Keira Knightley) affair with Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a decorated soldier once engaged to Anna’s younger sister. The two carry on without concern from Anna’s lifeless husband Karenin (Jude Law), but when she seeks a divorce and reveals she’s pregnant, the law prevents her from ever seeing her children again.
Even in a story of many characters and romantic threads, Wright’s approach feels thin, undermining the novel’s themes of forgiveness in love because his visual flourishes don’t say all they’re meant to. Knightley is typecast in roles like this, but she’s overacting in her attempt to be bigger than the scenery. It doesn’t help that Taylor-Johnson and his silly mustache are miscast.
I’ve been a big champion of Wright’s over-stylized departures into genre territory before (“Atonement,” “Hanna”), but this time he’s drawn too much spectacle out of the sport.
2 ½ stars