Naomi Watts might have the market cornered on grandiose suffering, but I'd wager that no one in the movies cries more prettily than Keira Knightley. It's something about that stuck-out jaw with its hint of an underbite that trembles just so, and the never-not-smoldering eyes that fill perfectly with clear, glassy tears. She's a picture of Pieta-lite agony and it's come in handy in a lot of her better-known roles. And it's perhaps never been put to more, if not better, use than in the new adaptation of Anna Karenina, directed with exquisite visual flair and little emotional intelligence by Knightley's frequent collaborator Joe Wright. This is their third outing together, previously making each other famous with a sprightly Pride & Prejudice and then burying each other in an avalanche of attractiveness in Atonement, and it's their least rewarding, a meticulously couture costume drama that fails to resonate in any sincere way.
For those unfamiliar with the story: Knightley plays Anna, a tediously married 19th century St. Petersburg lady of the aristocracy who finds herself drawn to the dashing young Count Vronsky (Aaron Johnson), a military man who's already caught the eye of Anna's unwed sister-in-law, trembling little leaf Kitty (up-and-comer Alica Vikander). Anna hopes that proper social mores will guide her away from these dangerous feelings, but, like a passive Lily Bart, she is ultimately helpless against them. And so a torrid affair begins, hearts are broken, Anna's husband (Jude Law) is enraged, and, like any good Russian story, things don't end terribly well. Beyond featuring a simple tale of adultery, Tolstoy's sprawling novel is stuffed with sociopolitical themes — polite society's crushing strictures, the legal shackles of marriage, the busy unhappiness of city people versus the simple pleasures of agrarian life — which pop up here and there in Tom Stoppard's clever but imprecise script, but they are muffled by reams and reams of fabric and other gilding that, by picture's end, become ornate symbols of annoyance rather than the eye-popping craftwork that they are. What is this Anna Karenina about? Oh, mostly a beautiful woman crying beautifully in beautiful places.
As a showy bit of derring-do, Wright decided to set the bulk of his film inside an old theater. Not simply under the proscenium, but backstage and up in the flys, even frequently letting scenes spill out into where the seats would normally be. It makes for some attractive and ingenius sequences, all tightly choreographed and almost balletic, with actors twirling from one scene into the next, the sets appearing before them like carefully rigged magic. Wright has done a beautiful job realizing his vision, the trouble is, he does nothing to communicate why he had the vision in the first place. Near as I can tell he did it just because it looks cool. The metaphor is muddy — there is some playgoing in the story, I suppose, and Russia has a rich dramatic tradition, of course — and needlessly distracts from what is already a rather rich drama of the stifled but unraveling human condition. In Atonement, Wright did a ta-da handstand when he pulled off a magnificent five-minute tracking shot of the scene at Dunkirk, but after it was over I was left wondering why it was in the movie, especially as it was based on a book that is achingly lovely and shattering on its own merits, without ever even traveling to the war. (We only hear about it, later.) This kind of technical hot-dogging doesn't go unnoticed, certainly, but when it stands out as just a neat trick that serves no real narrative purpose, it proves harmful to the overall experience. Wright has done the same writ large with Karenina's stagey setting, though it does at least make a bit more thematic sense here. What really stumps, though, is why he chooses to, on a few occasions, abandon the conceit altogether and go film some real-life scenes out in the Russian farmland. Oh, so, everything is trapped inside this little theater of human behavior until... it just sort of isn't? I get that he's trying to juxtapose uptight urban society with the looseness of the simpler life, but it comes off as literal at best and conceptually lazy at worst.
Wright should take a lesson from his own Hanna, which is a non-stop riot of experimentation that works beautifully. It works because, I suspect, he's telling an original and mostly sober-minded story without any previously existing heavy draping to also contend with. But with material like Atonement and Anna Karenina, all this hollow trickery sends the bad message that he either doesn't trust the material or is bored by it. And, in Karenina's case, when you've got a script by Tom Stoppard and actors as talented as Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Matthew Macfayden, and Kelly Macdonald (as Anna's brother and his wife), that's practically a crime. I respect Mr. Wright's desire to explore the potential wizardry of his craft — Alfonso Cuarón, one of the greatest directors working today, does that with every film — but not when it does disservice to the stories he's telling.
I credit those good actors because they are good here. Knightley should do more contemporary work lest she forever disappear into a teary heap of indistinguishable veils and corsets, but she can still sell burning, old-timey love as well as anyone, and here blazes with romantic fury. She's well matched with the just plain drop-dead sexy Aaron Johnson, who actually does a nice bit of acting here as well, even though he appears a bit too, um, stiff at times. Law goes for a gentler, and thus somehow more menacing, Karenin, giving the film a rare bit of nuance. I'm excited about Law, here with a whispery pate of receding hair, finally accepting the fact of his middle age and exploring all the new rooms that have suddenly opened up to him. As Kitty, young Vikander is chirpy and girlish in the film's stronger first half, and then pleasingly ages and develops new depth in the second, even as the rest of the film yaws and capsizes into a muddle of seemingly arbitrary drawing room angst. While Knightley tears around Russia chased by Dario Marianelli's turgid score, Vikander's Kitty and her finally realized true love Kostya (Domhnall Gleeson) satisfy the B-plot of Tolstoy's story with refreshing quietness and maturity. The contrast is intentional, but only one half of the dark/light dichotomy truly connects. And, not for nothing, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey films those verdant fields as well as anything in that ratty old theater.
I was quite eager to like Anna Karenina, pretty and pedigreed as it is, but it is alas an overcooked feast for the baser senses that leaves nothing for the mind, or the heart. How can we really feel for Anna's plight when what we're most concerned about is what dress she'll turn up in next? That's probably partly our fault, but Wright makes it a fashion show from the beginning (and Jacqueline Durran's costumes are impossibly lovely) and then never provides any real substance to balance it out. We hurry along from one strictly blocked scene to the next, on and on to the next grand visual, and then we're left dead on the train tracks. We've seen this overly slavish devotion to period opulence far too many times before. Truly great costume dramas are all great in their own way, but lousy costume dramas are pretty much all alike.