In Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, the eponymous heroine meets her demise with a good 50 pages to spare, leaving an entire section of the book to deal with not only the fallout of her death, but the resolution of the proto-existential crisis of the story's second principle character, Levin. In this new film version directed by Joe Wright and written by Tom Stoppard, things are perfunctorily wrapped up after Anna makes her fatal leap. The filmmakers have approached the problem of adaptation by salvaging the bulk of Anna's story while excising the majority of Levin's, a decision that's hardly surprising since the latter is both the less glamorous and the less obviously cinematic of the two principle through lines. Still, in relegating that character to just another romantic player in the film's interpersonal geometry, the film reduces Tolstoy's magisterial work to a much simpler tale of forbidden love, while in its unprepared-for attempts to hint at something of Levin's struggle for personal understanding, the filmmakers reach for epiphanies that seem to come nearly out of thin air.
But as an adaptation of a 19th-century literary property about love stifled by society strictures, the film contains far more passion and a tad more complexity than the dominant and typically more staid model of middlebrow costume drama—not to mention loads of extra aesthetic frippery. Against the background of 1870s Russian court society, in both St. Petersburg and Moscow, the film tells the story of Anna (Keira Knightley), not unhappily married to stodgy statesman Karenin (Jude Law, sufficiently uglified), at least until she catches the eye of young Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). That dandy is poised to marry Anna's brother's sister-in-law, Kitty (Alicia Vikander), until he begins a tumultuous affair with the title character, essentially leading to Anna's excommunication from society. Meanwhile, Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) laments his own failed bid to win Kitty's hand and, after hearing of Vronsky's rejection of his intended, begins to plan a second attempt.
Wright and Stoppard expertly navigate the complex web of interrelationships between Tolstoy's characters, using the supporting players to comment on and enhance the central story of Anna and Vronsky. Through Knightley's robust performance, the film powerfully conveys Anna's passion and despair, the latter emotion predominating as the woman finds herself ostracized from society and prevented from seeing her son due to her “breaking the rules” of courtly behavior. Similarly, the film also captures the boredom and hopelessness that result from a love affair forced to perpetuate itself in isolation, leading to irreconcilable tensions in the central couple after the pleasures of sex have begun to wear off. Equally impressive, the film excels in quieter self-contained moments, as in a supremely lovely scene in which Levin and Kitty communicate their feelings via lettered blocks, with their intuitive understanding of each other signaled by their ability to guess what the other means to say by being given only the first letter of each word.
Unfortunately, a director of Wright's often misguided ambitions can't be content to stage every scene in so unostentatious a manner. Nearly every moment in the film is awash in one or another of the director's generally half-baked visual ideas. His central conceit is to regard the action as a sort of perpetual mazurka taking place beneath the proscenium arch. Many scenes are explicitly theatrical, marked by painted backdrops, mannered movements, even sometimes literal stages, while the film, which occasionally relies on choreographed sequences that play like a musical without songs, is always filled with bodies (and cameras) in swirling motion. To the extent that the filmmakers' conception of the material is of a perpetual performance, the enacting of roles in a society dictated by unspoken codes, this decision makes sense, but soon, its point long exhausted and its perennial visual assault continually exhausting, this blatant theatricality becomes a gimmick that distracts from rather than enhances the fevered actions on display.
But these wells of feeling can't help but burst forth. For all his visual frippery, even Wright can't quite manage to screw up Tolstoy. Despite winnowing their focus away from everything in the novel that doesn't concern love or society, the filmmakers succeed in bringing out the complexities of relationships and depths of feeling that mark the source material, benefiting from the reproduction of several inspired moments in a book full of them. With an able assist from Knightley and a mostly strong supporting cast, Wright crafts an engrossing, literate film, treading water even under the weight of its director's misguided ambitions.