The new Anna Karenina is as regal, romantic and tragic as ever. Leo Tolstoy's tale of a bored wife and doting mother martyred by her scandalous love for a rakish cavalry officer in Imperial Russia is a perfect period vehicle for Keira Knightley, who plays the title character and always brings a chest-heaving sexuality to such pieces, even the understated romances of Janes Austen.
But her reunion with her Pride and Prejudice director, Joe Wright, has been stage-managed by the great playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard. He has given Tolstoy something no earlier screen version could claim: playfulness.
Wright and Stoppard, who wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Arcadia, imagine the whole of Tolstoy's rich canvas of 1870s Russia as a stage — the many melodramatic characters in his upper-crust soap opera mere players, actors stepping into the spotlight, leaning over the footlights, or ducking backstage where the ugly "real" world of just-freed peasants and poverty live among the catwalks and ropes used to raise and lower scenery.
A stellar cast waltzes through stunning sets, mixed with painted backdrops and model locomotives, some covered with snow from the cold Russian winters. It's an obvious artifice that renders the over-the-top emotions and overly baroque decadence of Russia's ruling classes, "polite society," just a tad risible. It's a welcome touch.
Anna is lost the moment she locks eyes with the preening pretty boy Count Vronsky (played here by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, exchanging his Kick-Ass costume for fancy military dress).
"Give me back my peace," she pants as he curls his mustache and simmers over her.
"There can be no peace between us," he says.
It's wrong. It's sinful. As Anna's statesman-husband, Alexi Karenin (Jude Law, spot-on), lectures, "Sin has a price. You may be sure of that."
Anna has a sort of Emma Bovary boredom about her knuckle-cracking spouse, from his imperious ways of ordering her to bed to the fancy silver case he keeps his condoms in.
Vronsky forgets he is supposed to be smitten by "Kitty," Princess Ekaterina (Alicia Vikander), a younger sister to Anna's sister-in-law. As reckless as he is rakish, Vronsky is catnip to Anna. Countess Lydia (Emily Watson) may lecture her that her husband is a "saint" and, "We must cherish him, for Russia's sake," but Anna's not buying it.
Even though Anna just talked her sister-in-law Dolly (Kelly Macdonald, earthy and distraught) into forgiving and taking back Anna's wayward brother Oblonsky (the hilarious Matthew Macfadyen, Knightley's co-star in Pride and Prejudice), she tumbles into an affair that will be her ruin. Will she herself be forgiven, taken back and "saved"?
Every production of Anna Karenina — there have been many — is a product of its times. Wright and Stoppard take pains to "see" the people the nobility do not: the rail worker killed in an early scene, assorted peasants, servants and the like.
Knightley and Taylor-Johnson, dolled up so that he looks like a younger Jonathan Rhys-Myers, have a certain chemistry. But the icy parameters of a stale marriage were never more vividly captured than in Law's scenes with Knightley. Count Karenin has a sort of compassionate severity that Law, who would have made quite the Vronsky himself, ably translates.
It's an overly familiar story, thanks to the many big- and small-screen versions of it over the years. There are too many characters to juggle, not enough scenes suggesting Anna's obsessive devotion to her young son. But this Anna Karenina, from its dancers-frozen-in-place waltzes to the public whispers that play like shouted indiscretions, reminds us that all the great period romances weren't written by Jane Austen, or even written in English.