Joe Wright, who is known for turning beloved British romance novels into movies, has stepped out of his comfort zone, fleeing the sun-kissed, pastoral English countryside for the gilded halls of the Russian aristocracy in his adaptation of Anna Karenina. The result is a visually distinctive movie that is a stab at aesthetic audacity: this is a play-within-a-film where sets change within a single shot as backgrounds get deconstructed and built anew; in a matter of seconds, a cafe becomes a powder room. The spatial geography follows no logic as palace doors suddenly open to desolate winter wastelands, and what was in one scene a ballroom becomes a stadium a few moments later. This directorial flourish is in turns baffling and captivating, and certainly original. Whether it is meant to underscore the fluctuating temperament of Anna Karenina, played by his muse Keira Knightley, or as a device to condense Leo Tolstoy’s sprawling classic, the film feels more like an exercise in cinematic style rather than a compelling period drama.
Despite the change of scenery, the thematic undercurrent that runs throughout the movie is something Wright is familiar with — forbidden love, illicit affairs, the romantic imbroglios of the wealthy. At the center of it all is Anna, the wife of the popular Russian statesman Aleksei Karenin played by Jude Law. When she meets a dashing cavalry officer named Count Vronsky, played by Aaron Johnson, she is torn between leaving her husband and protecting their public stature from the vulturous gossipmongers otherwise known as the members of the Moscovite high society. The unique contours of Knightley’s face lets her switch between blithe, girly naiveté when she’s with Vronsky, and the embodiment of elite, lady-like propriety when she’s in the company of dukes and duchesses and other people of note. Everything is a charade, much like the movie itself where the gaudy artifice belies a hollow emotional core. Knightley, however, deserves a measure of praise. She has the uncanny talent of using furtive glances and making use of the muscles in her cheeks and jaw to display a nascent yet perceptible expressiveness, a subdued quality fitting for a time when women were expected to perform roles thrusted upon them.
For Vronsky and Anna, what follows is a stripping down, sometimes literally, of the regalia and trimmings of the upper class, thus defying the social mores that govern them. Jonhson seems to have the brute sexual physicality of a 70s porn star with a mustache appropriate for the job. He is settling into a niche as the passionate, fiery lover one should lust for with caution after performing a similar role in last year’s Albert Nobbs. Here, he exudes a desirability coupled with danger and the risk of biting off more than one could chew. In contrast, Law’s Aleksei is a measured man who always rationalizes and makes moral justifications for himself to guide his actions. This causes him to be more tolerant than he should be after setting such a high bar: if one can reasonably give an explanation to justify one’s behavior, then it is permissible. This includes marital infidelity. Law here is a bit dull and lacks a necessary vitality and cogency, like their artificial marriage that needed to be injected with much-needed life.
Other than the central love triangle is a host of characters each embroiled in their own marital difficulties and intrigues. Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson provide the requisite secondary subplot and perform admirably in their small roles. The other people that populate Wright’s world move with a choreography that is befitting for a musical, and you almost expect characters to instantly break into song with their well-timed, precise movements. This does nothing more than to distract, to give a semblance of artistic innovation that calls on the viewer’s attention on itself. And ultimately, this is what undoes the movie and what will prevent audiences from being completely absorbed in it. The smoke, theatricality and spotlights all come at the expense of establishing the emotional gravitas that made the source material alluring. To call Wright bold and visionary would be misguided, because that implies a degree of success in his experiment. Garish might be a more appropriate adjective.