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Movie Review: 'Anna Karenina'

By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- With as many film versions as there have been – over two dozen -- of Anna Karenina, based on the classic 1877 novel by Leo Tolstoy, it behooves any new big-screen adaptation to offer something different in the way of an approach.

Director Joe Wright's daring reimagining of the frequently filmed material does just that. And does it quite well.

3 stars
(3 stars out of 4)

The creative and chancy route that the director travels, which might be described as a path of operatic theatricality, sets much – make that most -- of the action inside a theater, as if to underline the theatricality of the social rules followed and the public lives lived by the privileged during the late-nineteenth-century, all-the-world's-stage era of Imperial Russian society.

That conceit, forgoing realism and stylizing the action as if the characters were confined within a theater and performing in a staged play, takes some getting used to in the early going: we half-expect characters to burst into song. It just seems to overmake the central point. But once we settle in and realize that this is not to be a standard-issue costume drama, the non-naturalism wins us over -- even if we do accept the lowered ceiling on emotional investment as a result of the in-your-face artifice -- with its commitment to never-look-back exuberance and inspired execution.

Wright's Anna Karenina stars Keira Knightley in the title role as the wife of a distinguished government official, Alexei Karenin, played by Jude Law, and the mother of a loving young son who seems to be living a fulfilling life in 1874 as part of St. Petersburg's and Moscow's aristocracy.

But she is drawn into a consuming affair with a dashing cavalry officer, Count Vronsky, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, with whom she experiences unbridled passion for the first time.

Following the advice of a character who says to her, "I'd rather end up wishing I hadn't than wishing I had, wouldn't you?," Anna flouts convention and speeds through every Stop sign in her path.

Her obvious infidelity continues even after it becomes scandalous public knowledge and her husband issues an ultimatum: if she wishes to see her son, she must choose which life she is to live.

Director Joe Wright (Hanna, The Soloist), teaming up with leading lady Keira Knightley for a third time (2005's Pride & Prejudice, which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress,and 2007's Atonement), depends on the ravishing art direction and cinematography to keep us visually engaged. But it is the fascinating theatricality, which never flags, that proves so stimulating.

The script by Oscar winner Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) treats the Anna-Vronsky relationship as much as a lust story as it is a love story.

Knightley, as striking as ever, is up to the task; Law, appropriately deglamorized, is on the money in support; and even Taylor-Johnson, despite being miscast and looking very much out of place, holds his own.

But they are merely chess pieces, collectively playing second fiddle to the expressionistic style of this British take on a Russian novel, a version that makes Anna look more than ever like the victim of her uncontrollable passions, rather than the victim of a suffocating patriarchal society – more, that is, of an antiheroine than a heroine.

So we'll theatricalize 3 stars out of 4 for the latest rendering of the epic and tragic romantic drama, Anna Karenina, a still-powerful portrait of passion, even when presented in such an irreverent and unconventionally stagy manner.

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