Film
9:52 am
Fri November 30, 2012

In 'Anna Karenina,' Passion Rewarded With Punishment

Leo Tolstoy's classic novel Anna Karenina has been filmed, televised and musicalized enough that a 2012 version had to shake things up.

Director Joe Wright has reunited with his muse Keira Knightley (with whom he made Pride & Prejudice and Atonement) to bring new energy to the oft-told story of love's embers going cold, getting stoked, and dying altogether.

In 1874 Imperial Russia, Anna and her bookish, boring husband (Jude Law) are not so much coming apart as losing their sheen. On a visit to a relative, Anna (exquisitely dressed throughout by costumer Jacqueline Durran) meets the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), whose eyes seem to stray to every young woman in his peripheral vision. He's taken by Anna, and she him, perhaps because a married woman is the ultimate forbidden fruit; a conquest like that is akin to winning a prize fight with a steel-fisted man. What Anna fails to think about as she falls under his spell and into his bed is that she's ultimately dancing with disgrace.

Written by esteemed playwright Tom Stoppard, the movie is filmed in two ways: Anna's story is stylized, choreographed, and staged in and around a theater. Scenes unfold as if we're watching a Chekhov play or an opera, and had this self-conscious, idiosyncratic approach failed to be so engaging, the movie would have looked like Doctor Zhivago seen from the wrong end of a telescope. But it often works very well.

For example, in one scene, Knightley is posed on a catwalk high above the proscenium arch and almost entangled in the ropes that bring scrims and backdrops up and down. It's as if she's floating above her own body, watching her life unravel. And there's a spectacular sequence set at a horse race (if a horse race with real horses could ever take place in a theater) where the emotional tension of all three principal players collides with fury, grief and broken bones.

The subplot is filmed much more traditionally. It involves a relative of Anna's named Kitty and her beau, Levin,  a country gentleman with no hope of ever joining the aristocracy. One hears it's an important part of the novel but it's often downplayed or dismissed when the story goes before the cameras -- as it should.  Here, it only serves to stop the movie in its tracks, and digressing from Anna's heated but tragic story is bothersome -- after all, the movie's not called Levin.

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