Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright's new filming of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina might be a love story, but it has nothing to do with seduction. This Anna is all about the aftermath.
In many ways, Stoppard's screenplay is the truest of the myriad film adaptations of the book yet put to record. In popular imagination, Anna is a torrid love story about an impossible love affair between a married woman (Keira Knightley) and a dashing cavalry officer named Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), but Tolstoy's book is a much broader affair about the artifice of St. Petersburg and the dream of the noble life.
Accordingly, Stoppard has placed much of the moral heart of the film with gentleman farmer Levin (Domhnall Gleeson)—love-struck by the much younger Kitty Oblonsky—and with Anna's cuckolded husband, Karenin, played with pinched sadness by Jude Law.
The initial scenes are set almost entirely in a theater, slipping from tableau to gorgeously arranged tableau. Director Wright might indict the spectacle of public life for its shallow self-regard, but he also paws at it like an old lecher. That is to say, it's a beauteous conceit that nonetheless carries its own risks. Hollow Baz Luhrmann is visible in the theater's wings, leering like a cad. The staged tableaux whip by at such a pace early in the film that all sense of reality and consequence is removed, even as many of the actors provide genuine nuance in their roles.
Anna's infatuation with sprightly, uniformed wisp Taylor-Johnson is at first a catalog of empty gesture, which is then betrayed by shockingly genuine and pained confusion on Knightley's face as she realizes the pantomime has real consequence. In this film, only human pain can cause the curtains of the theater to recede. The most patient moments are spent in sadness or regret, aside from one truly touching moment of tenderness between Kitty and Levin, enacted with children's wooden blocks. As is also true of many beautiful people, this beautiful film is noble in suffering but often terrible in triumph.
And so Anna and Vronsky might chew the scenery in their doomed affair, but it is up to Law's wounded Karenin to digest it: The real moral discovery is in the power and terrible claustrophobia of his forgiveness. In counterpoint, farmer Levin's self-revelation is in his willingness to live at all. But while the men score their pained moral victories, the women are offered up as prizes or thrown on the bier. This is, indeed, a country for old men. R.
Critic's Grade: B
SEE IT: Anna Karenina opens Friday at Fox Tower.