Wright breaks from this gilded artifice only when the action moves to Levin's farm in the country - all of a sudden we're in a real world of fields and forest and sky. And in a few inspired moments, the two worlds collide. No, not collide, but merge - the real and the theatrical rubbing shoulders.
So, in this very significant way, Wright's Anna Karenina will either inspire or annoy audiences. (The deliberate staginess isn't rendered with as much hopped-up craziness as Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, say, but there are flashes of Baz-ness here, to be sure.)
Which brings us to the story at hand: the helpless tumble into the throes of infidelity, as Anna meets the handsome rake Vronsky (a somehow lacking Aaron Taylor-Johnson), endangering her dull but comfortable marriage to Alexei (a bespectacled, brooding Jude Law). Despite the tsk-tsking of all of Moscow and St. Petersburg society, Anna throws herself headlong into the affair. Things can only end badly.
Knightley brings palpable anguish to her performance - and erotic elation, too: "I'm like a beggar who has been given food," she sighs, in the aftermath of amour. And she is wonderful as she seeks the counsel of Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), her sister-in-law, wed to an adulterer, and ruing her own faithfulness. And Knightley looks smashing in her veils and jewels, her dresses and stoles, with shoulder blades aquiver in ecstasy and despair.
Wright, a Brit, has cast his grand crowd of Russian nobles and landowners with (mostly) his fellow countrymen (and -women): Olivia Williams as Vronsky's disapproving countess mother; Matthew Macfadyen as Oblonsky, Anna's brother, a civil servant; Domhnall Gleeson as Levin, the earnest farmer who declares his love for Kitty (Dolly's younger sister); Emily Watson and Shirley Henderson in smaller roles. Speaking of Kitty, she is played by Alicia Vikander, the Swedish actress currently on screens in another sumptuous period piece, A Royal Affair.
It's hard not to admire Wright's bold approach to Anna Karenina's story of longing and jealousy and societal condemnation. And the boldness rubs off on some of the actors, who exude a kind of "Look Ma, no realism!" enthusiasm for their roles and the context they find themselves in. Still, Wright, Knightley, and company's turn on Tolstoy's opus - with a script by Tom Stoppard - never achieves true greatness. True cleverness, yes, and flashes of deep and true emotion, but only flashes.
Anna Karenina *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Joe Wright. With Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, and Matthew Macfadyen. Distributed by Focus Features.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 mins.
Parent's guide: R (sex, profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz East and Rave Motion Pictures at Ritz Center/NJ
Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.