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'Anna Karenina' is a bold adaptation of classic novel

REVIEW: The weight of its intellectual distancing device presses much of the life and feeling out of Joe Wright's and Tom Stoppard's adventurous adaptation of Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina." Dazzlingly designed and staged in a theatrical setting so as to suggest that the characters are enacting assigned roles in life, this tight and pacy telling of a 900 page-plus novel touches a number of its important bases but lacks emotional depth, moral resonance and the simple ability to allow its rich characters to experience and drink deeply of life.

The miscasting of the male romantic lead is also a problem in this intelligent and in some ways estimable attempt to make a different sort of romantic costume drama, one that will inspire sufficient curiosity and praise to make the grade as a solid upscale late autumn release for Focus Features.

One of the many ways Tolstoy's 1877 novel is so great is that it delves into all the stages and forms of life and love, from their exalted beginnings to stagnation and demise and everything in between. For reasons of length, most of the dozen film adaptations, including the 1927 and 1935 Hollywood versions starring Greta Garbo and the 1948 British edition with Vivien Leigh, focus on the adulterous love affair between the married Anna and the dashing cavalry officer Vronsky and cast aside the parallel story of landowner Levin's quest for a meaningful path in life.

Stoppard's concentrated adaptation happily finds room for Levin along with everyone else on the literal theater stage that serves as the starting point and home base for this drama of passion and society. Director Wright runs with the concept, not, fortunately, in the over-the-top Baz Luhrmann manner, but it in a way that is arresting, mannered, gorgeous, stifling, surprising and facile by turns. No matter how stimulating it can be to behold, however, ultimately the artificial settting makes the nature of the film antithetical to that of the novel; whereas the book is sprawling, searching and realistic, the film is constricted, deterministic and counterfeit.

To be sure, Wright, who broke in as a feature director with his sterling literary adaptations of "Pride and Prejudice" and "Atonement," both with Keira Knightley, cracks the visual whip in his role as ringmaster, propelling the camera through a combination of unvarnished backstage spaces, theater sets, elaborately designed film settings and, infrequently but liberatingly, outdoor locations, some of them actually shot in Russia. Much of the action, from intimate love scenes to ballroom dances, appears choreographed and the dialogue delivery often feels arch and slightly stylized.

“Sin has a price, you may be sure of that,” successful politician Karenin (Jude Law) tells his beautiful wife of nine years, Anna (Knightley). She is about to find out for herself. Devoted to her son Serozha (Oskar McNamara) but living a dutiful life of privilege in St. Petersburg society, she is immediately smitten upon locking eyes with the handsome officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) at the train station in Moscow, where she has come to console the wife, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) of her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), who's been caught cheating with their children's nanny.

With the numerous important characters dashing on and offstage and establishing themselves solely on the basis of deft instant impressions, rural denizen Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) turns up to ask Dolly's sweet younger sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander) to marry him. Rejecting him because she's entranced by Vronsky, Kitty is herself spurned at a grand ball by Vronsky, who takes the occasion to move in on Anna.

The exquisite wife hesitates for a time but capitulation is inevitable, just as is her husband's eventual discovery of the truth, which sends Anna into a sort of exile with her lover and, in short order, ostracism from society. Unfortunately, he first part of the story as whipped together here is more compelling than the latter, as the deterioration of Anna and Vronsky's relationship is too compressed and insufficiently detailed.

More than that, Taylor-Johnson is simply too young and one-dimensional to play a man of such reputation and sway. Often described as “callow,” Vronsky is certainly that in the hands of this actor, who was only 21 at the time of filming and lacks the weight and presence to convince as such a commanding figure; dying his hair blond only furthers his problems in a role played more authoritatively in earlier productions by the likes of Fredric March and Sean Connery.

Enough of Anna's romantic anguish over her ultimate fate probably remains to draw in younger audiences being exposed to this story for the first time. For the more academically inclined, there is a measure of interest simply on the basis of Wright's bold decision to impose the artificiality of the theatrical setting, to see what does and doesn't play. As intriguing as it may be in big set pieces such as the ball and in small details such as a child's toy train suddenly becoming a full-sized one on which crucial scenes are played out, the technique becomes palpably constricting in the second half, where the abridgments of Stoppard's script become all too noticeable.

Knightley gives Anna a decent shot but she lacks the mature beauty and inner radiance described in the novel; of all contemporary actresses, Marion Cotillard would come closest to an ideal Anna. Deglamorized, with glasses and a receding hairline, Law makes for a composed and accessible Karenin who's not too priggish and boring. Vikander, the star of the upcoming Danish costumer A Royal Affair, is a fine Kitty, red-headed and bearded Gleeson grows nicely into a sympathetic Levin (the sort-of Tolstoy figure) and Macfadyen excels as a vigorous, non-fuddy-duddyish Oblonsky.

From a craft and technical point of view, the film is immaculate, if inevitably somewhat airless and suffocating. It scores significant points for departing from the period piece norm but crucial components have been sacrificed in the process.

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