Joe Wright's sumptuous adaptation of Anna Karenina is a bit of a mess 

Pleasure and Pain

The big question: Why would Keira Knightley leave Jude Law for Aaron Taylor-Johnson?

Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

The big question: Why would Keira Knightley leave Jude Law for Aaron Taylor-Johnson?

Shakespeare said that all the world's a stage, and director Joe Wright certainly agrees. His adaptation of Anna Karenina literally puts the stunning seductress, played by Keira Knightley, on a theatrical stage. The camera views the action from emptied-out audience boxes, stagehands dance around the actors while carrying props and lights, and our characters, in lieu of privacy, take quiet walks backstage among the hired help. At one point, when celebratory fireworks begin to go off, our characters stare up at a ceiling, parts of which retract to offer a pleasingly framed vision of the night sky. Wright doesn't just believe in Brechtian distancing devices; he's built a movie around them.

This is Wright's movie first and an adaptation of Tolstoy's novel second. Wright worked with playwright Tom Stoppard to adapt the story to screen, and the two don't just drown the narrative in overt stylizations, they excise and re-emphasize sections and subplots as they see fit. Anna Karenina has been turned from a multi-faceted novel into a delectably sensual yarn.

But the overarching story remains the same: Anna, who married exceedingly young and has one child with the highly respected Karenin (Jude Law), falls for the boyishly beautiful soldier Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and follows her infatuation in spite of all the social and familial upheaval it will inevitably bring. Yet the mood and the design take their cues from the excitement of love at first sight, not from the destruction that follows. The tragedy remains, but Wright seems to see no use dwelling on it when it's wearing such a pretty dress.

That's fine by me. The novel has been adapted countless times before, and a week-long mini-series would be required to do its massive text actual justice. On the other hand, Wright's stage-bound approach brings with it an intoxicating quality, filling each frame with kinetic pleasures. Dance scenes have to be choreographed around the people setting up the lights, repetitive workplace noises become overwhelming soundtracks, even putting on a coat becomes an almost musical process. The treatment stresses the judging gaze of a self-righteous society, but mainly it allows Wright to engage in show-stopping set pieces, all driven by the curiously intimate approach. It's a polarizing concept, one likely to work better for those divorced from the source than for those looking for an honest evocation of it.

Even Wright's most ardent defenders, myself included, will have to admit that the film is a bit of a mess. For example, the character of Levin, who shuns aristocratic life and serves as the embodiment of Tolstoy's ideals, sits undeveloped on the fringes and seems but a mere annoyance to the director. His philosophies and actions, if given due prominence, should serve as a counterpoint to Anna's seemingly selfish abandonment of her family. But Wright's take on him feels tacked-on, less an organic part of the adaptation than a chore forced on the filmmakers by a matter of circumstance.

Then there's Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who in most of his pictures (Kick Ass, Nowhere Boy, Albert Nobbs) seems flummoxed by the very idea of self-confidence, stuck uncomfortably in the role of Vronsky. It's not that he interprets the role incorrectly; it's simply that he can't pull it off — his facial expressions are mute and unconvincing, his line deliveries as artificial as Wright's approach. When he's simply an object for Anna to gaze at, he's serviceable, but when the film begins to take interest in his emotions, he reveals himself, as an actor, to be a dreadful bore. A friend remarked to me that the film required someone like '80s-era Nicolas Cage — someone comfortable in their own smarminess. Taylor-Johnson doesn't look comfortable in his own skin for a single second. You don't ask yourself why Anna abandons her social standing and life itself. You ask "why him?"

And don't get me started on the third act, which abandons the stage-bound conceit on-and-off for no apparent reason while skipping, Cliffs Notes style, through climactic moments at lightning pace. Wright's adaptation is scattershot at best, but for every misstep there's a breathtaking sequence, like Anna's heart-racing and hallucinogenic first dance with Vronsky, to keep you intensely involved. His Karenina may not be the densely intellectual experience the source suggests, but it's a carnal pleasure nonetheless.

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