By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Knocking some stuffiness out of Leo Tolstoy's lit-class hurdle Anna Karenina, director Joe Wright atones for previously turning theaters into staid libraries. There's little of his slavish reverence for the written word that made snores of Atonement and Pride & Prejudice, replaced by a creative tack that's fairly exciting until the novelty wears off.
Working from the notion that 19th century Russian aristocracy lived as if on stage, Wright presents them that way, almost entirely in a theater with roving cameras and shifting set designs. The seats are removed to allow actors free movement to mingle and dance, and backstage riggings are left to represent the proletariat world outside castle walls. It's an audacious mashup that Baz Luhrmann would approve, lending freshness to Tolstoy's too-often-told tale.
At center stage is Anna, a lovely gamine with fidelity issues played by Wright's corseted muse Keira Knightley. Anna is classic tragedy waiting to happen, torn between the duty of marriage and temptation of the heart. At home she is grudgingly devoted to government wonk Karenin (Jude Law), whose severe, loveless nature is ample reason to be distracted by dashing playboy Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
There's a parallel love triangle brewing with Vronsky, the young socialite Kitty (Alicia Vikander) and Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a farmer and budding revolutionary against the ruling upper class. In the book Levin is Tolstoy's philosophical twin, a proponent of communal sharing of labors and rewards. On screen, Wright and adapter Tom Stoppard seek to make Levin's politics and pursuit of Kitty as vital as Anna's lust, the main reason the movie's second half loses steam.
Wright's innovative approach to this material mostly stays interesting, though. Within the confines of that theater Anna Karenina blooms in unexpected ways, including a masterful single take beginning with the camera surveying bureaucrats stamping papers in choreographed rhythm. Then it glides and rotates 360 degrees to reveal a hastily constructed street scene complete with strolling musicians. It's a distinctly well planned and executed stunt, one of the movie's most memorable passages.
The stage itself becomes Karenin's source of isolation after learning of Anna's deceit, sitting forlorn in a chair with footlights creating nothing but darkness in his eyesight. A child's toy train set steps in for the real thing when travel to Moscow is required, and the train station where Tolstoy foretells Anna's future has the look of a helicopter landing in the middle of Miss Saigon or a chandelier crashing in The Phantom of the Opera.
Wright occasionally makes such positive impressions with his drama, usually thanks to Knightley's well-established grace in period pieces and Law suppressing his charisma to play a true louse. The rest of the cast is merely another pretty backdrop for Wright to roll in and out of the frame when necessary. Anna Karenina turns Tolstoy's novel into a fascinating pop-up book, and a music box theater into the Russian high society he mocked.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.