‘Anna Karenina’ Review: Lavish Film Gets Lost With Old, Decaying Staging

Keira Knightly delivers impressively in director Joe Wright's version of "Anna Karenina" 

Directors make decisions. That’s what they’re hired for and paid to do.

Joe Wright (“Atonement”) made a key decision on “Anna Karenina” that is going to have everything to do with how a viewer responds to his version of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s 19th century novel about a woman who gives up everything for love.

He decided to use a framing device to tell the story, to put all of the action on stage as it were. Scene after scene is staged as if it were being done in a grand old, decaying theater, with the camera pulling back to reveal sets or moving up to the theater’s rafters and backstage.

Wright did this to emphasize the theatricality of the work and the artifice of the lives of these 19th century Russian aristocrats. (According to the production notes, the director devised his all-the-world’s-a-stage concept just two months before shooting started, layering it on top of screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s already submitted adaptation of the novel.)

For anyone who failed to read “Anna Karenina” in high school or college, the story is simple: The title character is the beautiful wife of an officious, upper-level bureaucrat (Jude Law) in St. Petersburg and the mother of a young son. While visiting her brother (Matthew Macfadyen) in Moscow, Anna (Keira Knightley) meets a handsome young cavalry officer, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Sparks fly between the older married woman and the youthful military man and soon they’re regularly rolling in the hay.

Anna is in love — recklessly and gloriously — with Vrosnky. She risks everything, including her marriage, custody of her son and inclusion in the upper strata of society, to be with him. Whether he is worthy of such love has always been the rub in this tale. (Previous major film versions of “Karenina” include a 1935 movie with Greta Garbo and Fredric March as Anna and Vronsky, a 1948 film  with Vivien Leigh and Kieron Moore, and a 1997 one with Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean.)

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Knightley delivers impressively as the movie’s heroine. Her thin frame practically vibrates with passion and it’s clear this Anna knowingly and willingly follows a path–spoiler ahead–that can only lead to doom. Equally good is Law as her husband. He sidesteps priggishness to instead play Karenina as a man committed to ideals and certain societal codes of conduct. It is more in sorrow than in anger that he watches as his wife defies his directives to behave herself.

The weak link is Taylor-Johnson. Vronsky is supposed to be, to some extent, a callow youth. His performance adds hollow to callow. There’s not much here besides a pretty face and a slammin’ body. That Anna views him as a possible long-term prospect makes you question her smarts.

But back to Wright and his decision to mount the entire movie as if it were a collection of scenes performed on a stage. For me, the obvious artifice distances the viewer from fully entering into the emotion of the story and the characters. The whole thing seemed like opera, but without the singing, which makes it rather beside the point.

Every time you found yourself getting into a scene, really empathizing with Anna or another character, the camera would pull back to include a stagehand moving scenery, or the edges of a set or a rope pulling a stage weight and the illusion was shattered.

Yes, that’s what Wright intended but it’s a concept that would work better in an actual theater or opera house rather than on screen. Different, this movie proves, isn’t always better.