All the world's a stage, very literally, in Joe Wright's wildly theatrical adaptation of "Anna Karenina."
If you thought the director's five-and-a-half-minute tracking shot in "Atonement" was show-offy, you ain't seen nothing yet. Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard ("Shakespeare in Love") have taken Leo Tolstoy's literary behemoth about love, betrayal and death among the elite in imperial Russia and boldly set it almost entirely within a decaying theater.
The inspiration comes from the notion that the members of high society conducted themselves as if they were performing on stage. The result is technically dazzling, a marvel of timing and choreography.
"Anna Karenina" is at once cleverly contained and breathtakingly fluid; it's crammed with rich, intimate detail yet moves with a boundless energy that suggests anything is possible. A character walks across the floor and people dress him as he goes. Sets slide into an empty space at the precise moment to create a cozy surrounding. And the sense of movement is just memorable from a sound design perspective: the rapid flapping of a fan seamlessly transforms into the thundering of horse hooves, for example.
But wondrous as all this artifice is, it's also a huge distraction. The self-consciousness of the structure keeps us at arm's length emotionally. Snow globes and Faberge eggs are just as tidy and ornate but more capable of eliciting a response from the viewer. Rather than feeling the suffering of the adulterous Anna (Keira Knightley), we're more likely to notice how beautiful the suffering looks - the flattering lighting, her wild mane of dark curls spread meticulously across her pillow case.
And eventually the trickery actually becomes a bit predictable. When Anna's cuckolded husband Karenin (Jude Law) tears up a desperate letter from his wife and tosses the pieces in the air, you just know they're going to come down as snowflakes. And they do.
Still, it's impossible not to have huge admiration for this ambitious, complicated risk. "Anna Karenina" has been brought to the screen many times over the past century but never like this.
A refresher for anyone who may have forgotten the book since high school. The year is 1874. Anna is a prominent member of St. Petersburg society, the wife of a respected government official and the mother of an adorable little boy. (Knightley, in her third collaboration with Wright following "Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement," looks steely and radiant in an array of elaborate, luxurious gowns and furs, once again the work of Oscar-nominated costume designer Jacqueline Durran.)
Things seem pretty comfortable until she takes a trip to Moscow to visit her philandering brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), to help him restore his marriage. Upon arrival at the train station, she experiences an instant spark with Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson in an ill-advised blonde dye job), a handsome, flirtatious cavalry officer. Soon her virtue goes out the window as she launches into a brazen, full-blown affair with this younger, single man. She is, for the first time in her sheltered life, passionately in love.
Given the time and place, divorce was not exactly a process that was easy or forgiving of women. But Anna sooner finds herself consumed from within as jealousy, paranoia and neediness eat away at her seemingly unshakable confidence. This "Anna Karenina" depicts the tragic heroine as a victim of her own doing rather than society's; it also elevates the more optimistically romantic subplot involving the sensitive landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) who pines for the young, pretty Kitty (Alicia Vikander), providing some beautiful and inspired opportunities to open up the scenery to the outside world.
The sense of excess that pervades "Anna Karenina" extends to strong supporting cast, including Olivia Williams as Vronsky's meddlesome countess mother, Kelly Macdonald as Oblonsky's loyal wife and Shirley Henderson in one late, key scene as a viciously judgmental opera patron. They're all working as hard as their surroundings - if only all that effort resulted in an emotional payoff.
"Anna Karenina," a Focus Features release, is rated R for some sexuality and violence. Running time: 130 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.