Starring: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Alicia Vikander, Matthew Macfadyen
Rated: R, for some sexuality and violence
Runtime: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Bottom line: Entertaining but certainly not great
“Anna Karenina” is nearly a great film.
The first act is flat-out brilliant, as director Joe Wright introduces his characters with a hyperkinetic camera that launches a classic story into the 21st century and uses a theater set in ingenious ways.
Leo Tolstoy’s novel plays out among the typical haunts of the Russian bourgeoisie — exquisite parlors, ballrooms and theaters. The story has also been adapted to the stage many times. It makes a kind of sense, then, that Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard would set the first scene of the film on a theater stage.
But as each following scene unfolds, Wright continues to use the same theater as a set, but he doesn’t restrict the action to the stage. Instead, he moves the action throughout the entire theater, using the seating area as a ballroom, the wings of the stage as a proletarian apartment, and so on.
This choice is surprisingly effective for this melodramatic yarn, and Wright seamlessly transitions from one setting to another.
During one scene, Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a principled, hardworking landowner, proposes marriage to recently debuted beauty Kitty (Alicia Vikander) on the stage of the theater, which for that moment stands in for the receiving area of a ballroom. She turns him down because she believes wealthy playboy Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) plans to court her.
Despondent, Konstantin abruptly leaves the ball to visit his revolutionary, alcoholic brother Nikolai (David Wilmot), who lives in a ghetto of St. Petersburg. Konstantin climbs backstage stairs, then has to maneuver through the fly rigging system above the stage.
Wright positions various lower class extras throughout the fly system, and along with the ropes and other parts of the rigging, this setting perfectly projects the atmosphere of an impoverished neighborhood. Konstantin then enters a dimly lit, hidden upper office that functions equally well as Nikolai’s apartment.
Wright keeps the story moving at a clip that belies the ponderous length of Tolstoy’s novel, and the style of the film is no less than stunning. The settings could become distracting and theatrical, but they instead imbue the film with a unique look and energy that are, ironically, completely cinematic.
However, notice that thus far I’ve said very little about the story in “Anna Karenina.” As impressive and intriguing as Wright’s style is early on, such a device is not enough to carry us through an entire film.
Wright efficiently introduces the film’s many characters, but the style of the movie prevents him from developing them.
Vronsky does not pursue Kitty because he and Anna (Keira Knightley) fall in love at first sight. They begin a love affair that threatens to end Anna’s marriage to Karenin (Jude Law), which would deny her custody of the son she loves so dearly.
Meanwhile, Konstantin continues to pine for Kitty, who is left heartbroken by Vronsky’s affair with her aunt, Anna.
Once Anna and Vronksy begin their affair, their story progressively loses energy. The scenes they share devolve into either extended weeping or ineffectual tantrums.
Stoppard (“Shakespeare in Love,” “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead”) is one of the most respected screenwriters alive and one wonders what happened to his work. His trademark wit, characterization and exuberance disappear midway through the film.
It’s clear by the end that Wright wasn’t sure how to balance storytelling with innovative style.
Wright increasingly uses traditional sets and exteriors for scenes which could have been set in the theater, until the very thing that made the film exciting early on, not to mention the entire conceit on which the film is built, is forgotten for the last 40 minutes or so.
Outstanding performances by Law, Gleeson, Vikander, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald and Olivia Williams make the second half enjoyable, but it still feels like this film falls rather than leaps to its finish.
The movie flirts with greatness for a while, but is doomed by style over substance.
Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.