The latest of a dozen adaptations drawn from Tolstoy's groundbreaking novel "Anna Karenina" features a series of gorgeous tableaux vivants - frozen compositions, remarkable for both their beauty and their remoteness.
At its best, the film is a spectacle owing its highest marks to production designer Sarah Greenwood, set designer Katie Spencer, choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and costume designer Jacqueline Durran. During its opening scenes, the movie's shape-shifting sets pay homage to the imaginative minds injecting magic into theatrical productions. Official government offices become the streets of Moscow, which in turn, reconfigure into a grand ballroom, a farm or a race track.
The setting is an old fashioned theater, but the staging area goes well beyond the elevated stage to encompass the theater's auditorium and catwalks.
Director Joe Wright exaggerates his stylized vision by allowing model trains to stand in for the real thing, or by making a seamless transition from a rain of ripped pieces of paper into snowflakes.
It's all quite fetching, as far as it goes, but it depersonalizes the tragic story of Anna Karenina.
The titular character, played by a stiff-jawed Keira Knightly, is a 28-year-old member of elite Russian society when she decides to trade privilege and respect for an illicit affair with young military officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
Anna's husband, government official Karenin (a balding, bespectacled Jude Law), feels both protective of his naïve wife and angered by her humiliating behavior. He warns Anna she will be estranged from her young son and become a pariah should she publicly pursue love with Vronsky. Believing romantic love will sustain her, Anna is not prepared for being marginalized. We witness her descent into despair from a number of strange angles, held at arm's length by the structure of Wright's film and the odd manner in which the film hops from one brief scene to the next.
Emotions register most strongly with the men in the story. Karenin's suffering is sufficiently quiet that we absorb his desperate efforts to preserve his perfect life.
We also meet Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a young land baron and brother to Anna's sister-in-law. Levin comes to Moscow hoping to court Kitty (Alicia Vikander), a young noble woman who refuses Levin's proposal because she is hoping to receive one from Vronsky. Levin's story incorporates the beginning of class breakdown as he works his farm beside the serfs he has freed from slavery to the land.
Though Wright's early scenes depict both interior and exterior settings within the confines of the theater, he soon leaves these restrictions behind for location shoots at a train station, mansions, and an outdoor skating rink, commingling film conventions with theater conventions. This dual strategy distracts from the focus of Anna's struggle to retain her vaunted rank in society while indulging in a scandalous affair.
Both Anna, the heroine, and director Wright, wage pretty battles to reconcile competing agendas, and we can't look away. To see "Anna Karenina" is to witness a sort of grand experiment. Whether it achieves the desired result is almost beside the point.