There’s no deadlier sort of movie than a stodgy literary adaptation. Thankfully, Joe Wright seems incapable of making one. When, at the far end of a long run of Jane Austen adaptations, another take on Pride & Prejudice seemed like the last movie anyone needed, Wright delivered a kinetic, moving take on the novel. With Atonement, he found cinematic equivalents of the modernistic prose and postmodern literary devices of Ian McEwan’s books without losing the emotional center. That sort of track record earns him the right to crack Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina open and see what he can do with its parts. Working from a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, he does precisely that with a new adaptation that streamlines the backpack-breaking novel, and most audaciously, stages its action as a stage production that doesn’t attempt to hide its own theatricality.
The primary location is actually an elaborate set made to resemble a much-used theater, a touch that adds one more layer of illusion and distance to a daring, sometimes breathtaking, but ultimately disappointing take on the material. Anna Karenina contains setpieces of mind-boggling complexity—including long, elaborate takes filled with extras called upon to hit their marks with Rolex precision. As an accomplishment, and watched on a scene-by-scene basis, it’s one of the most stunning movies of recent years. It’s filled with good work from the cast, too. Working with Keira Knightley for the third time, Wright has found an actress capable of embodying the charm of the novel’s doomed heroine and the soul-deep desperation awakened, or just confirmed, by her affair with Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a handsome, callow cavalry officer for whom she abandons her older husband (an appropriately fusty Jude Law).
If only the emotions of the performances, the themes of the story, and Wright’s cinematic virtuosity synced up more often. A lopsided abridgement that speeds through the plot doesn’t help. Tolstoy’s novel dedicates nearly as much time to Levin (played by Domhnall Gleeson), a privileged, Tolstoy-esque landowner questioning his station in life, whose search for love and meaning parallels Anna’s ultimately less successful search for the same. Though Wright’s film hardly ignores Levin, Gleeson gets much less screen time than Knightley. While in some respects, it isn’t hard to see why—it’s easier to make adultery cinematically compelling than conversations about agrarian reform and the regional court system of 19th-century Russia—it doesn’t always compensate for the unevenness created by his reduced role. Wright’s Anna Karenina often plays more like a pageant presentation of the novel for those who already know it rather than an independent work. (That’s reinforced by the way some characters exit and enter before they make much impression, most notably Emily Watson’s Countess Lydia.) As such, the moments that work aren’t soon forgotten, but it’s one for the eyes more than the heart.