Style over substance is a complaint often lodged against big-budget action movies and slick comic book adaptations. But toward Oscar bait based on famous literature? Not as common.
Yet, here we are with Joe Wright's "Anna Karenina," a retelling of Leo Tolstoy's classic novel, packed to the limit with elaborately lavish theatrics, dressing, camera movements and choreography. The trailers call these things "a bold new vision." I call it a bunch of pretty, meticulously crafted distractions.
As adapted by playwright and "Shakespeare in Love" scribe Tom Stoppard, "Anna Karenina" serves as a fairly trimmed-down telling of Tolstoy's epic tale of loves gained and lost. Keira Knightley (who previously worked with director Wright on his two other literary adaptations, "Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement") plays the titular character, a Soviet aristocrat stuck in a dull, lifeless marriage with the respected Count Alexi Karenin, played by Jude Law.
Her wealthy-yet-inert life becomes a public debacle when she falls into an affair with the young and handsome Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson from "Kick-Ass"). What ensues is an internal battle between obligation and desire, public image and private desire, and the horrible, fickle forces of love.
At the same time comes a more optimistic tale of love between Levin and Kitty (Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander). It doesn't start well, as she turns down Levin's awkward marriage proposal with the assumption that the charming Vronsky will propose as well. He doesn't, Levin flees to the Russian countryside and Kitty becomes filled with hurt and then regret.
The unique innovation Stoppard and Wright bring to this particular telling of "Anna Karenina" is the staging. That being the literal staging, as Anna's epic battle with the forces of love takes place mostly in an elaborate old theater. A change in setting is often just a walk across the stage away, the backstage mess of ropes, ladders and lights are visible and chandeliers and other settings descend into the frame as though controlled by invisible crewmen while the cast freezes or slows in place. The stage even opens up to reveal a Soviet country winter, a train station or a crucial horse race.
It's an inventive and often captivating storytelling idea (no surprise coming from Wright, whose slick, composed visual sense also made last year's "Hanna" one of the year's best action films) that even fits with the intense melodramatic elements of Tolstoy's tale. So much of Anna's story feels like a theatrical tragedy; it only seems fair to make the audience feel like just another member of the Russian elite, watching her drama with rapt, judgmental attention.
Wright and Stoppard, however, don't stop at the setting. Most of the characters' movements are filled with elaborate choreography and flourishes, whether during a dance or merely entering a building. It adds to the notion of everyone's lives being carefully organized according to society's expectations, structure and blocking.
However, that's exactly what "Anna Karenina" feels like: blocking. Everything is so elaborately planned, frightfully aware and hyper stylized that the emotions and story can barely breathe. It's all very beautiful and visually impressive, but for a story about love and passion, the story feels limp, crushed by the weight of all of its lavish complexities. It also feels mighty rushed, though perhaps that's to be expected when trying to compress an almost-1,000-page novel into a two-hour film.
If any emotion is to be found in "Anna Karenina," it's in the performances. Knightley is compelling as always, a world of suppressed emotions and confusion simmering under her regal chill. She sparks considerable chemistry with Taylor-Johnson, who seems a bit too young but is sufficiently handsome and charming. Law is also very good as well, playing her cold, baffled husband, sympathetically trying to figure out what to do next.
As the younger, blooming romance, Gleeson and Vikander don't make much of an impression, partly because the film's speedy pace doesn't give them much time. However, a conversation involving some children's letter blocks serves as a highlight for the entire film, a rare case of intimate emotion trumping flashy spectacle. Matthew Macfadyen (last seen in Paul W.S. Anderson's regrettable "The Three Musketeers") steals a few scenes as well as Anna's cartoonish brother.
"Anna Karenina" has the cast and the content to be a great literary adaptation. Instead, style wins out. In the end, it resembles a cake covered in a foot of frosting and sprinkles. The cake may be delicious, but it's impossible to taste underneath all of its d├ęcor. It sure looks nice though.
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