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With: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams, Michelle Dockery, Emily Watson, Holliday Grainger, Shirley Henderson, Bill Skarsgård
Written by: Tom Stoppard, based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy
Directed by: Joe Wright
MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality and violence
Running Time: 130
Date: 09/07/2012

Anna Karenina (2012)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Torrid Tolstoy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, which was published as a serial between 1873 and 1877, was popular in its day, and is considered a masterpiece now. In a 2007 poll of 125 authors, it came out as the #1 greatest novel of all time (the same author's War and Peace came in at #3). Subsequently, it has been filmed some dozen times, though perhaps the most successful is the 1935 Greta Garbo version.

All this is hard to ignore when looking at a new Anna Karenina movie, this one directed by Joe Wright, the talented maker of Pride and Prejudice (2005), Atonement (2007), The Soloist (2009) and Hanna (2011).

Happily Wright and his screenwriter, the legendary Tom Stoppard, have concocted a unique look and feel for the film. Set mostly in what looks like a theater, the action takes place not only on the stage, but also elsewhere in the building. Outdoor scenes are more realistic, but characters enter into them theatrically. This Anna Karenina is fluid, moving, twirling, open and uninhibited, not at all like the stagebound, static costume pieces we usually get.

Keira Knightley -- her third time working with Wright -- stars as Anna. She's married to a no-nonsense businessman, Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), and has a little boy she adores. She receives a letter from her brother, Stiva (Matthew Macfadyen), learning that he has had an affair with the governess and that his household is in turmoil. Anna agrees to visit to try to set things right. In Moscow, she meets the handsome Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), at the same time as a railway worker is killed under the wheels of a train. He becomes infatuated with her, and she's certainly affected by him.

Meanwhile, we get a subplot that was cut out of the Garbo film. Stiva has a friend, a simple farmer, Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who wants to propose to Princess Kitty (Alicia Vikander). She refuses, because she thinks she's going to hook up with Vronsky. While Vronsky and Anna embark upon their torrid, illicit, and passionate affair, Levin sulks for a while, but then he and Kitty become the good, upright part of the story.

Despite all this good stuff, I found that I wasn't swept away by this Anna Karenina, at least not completely. My heart didn't break, as it did while watching Andrea Arnold's re-imagining of Wuthering Heights not long ago. I'm not entirely sure why this is, though it's interesting to explore the cast. Now, Garbo was born to play this part. She's the embodiment of passion. She was so intense and such a giving performer that she made up for any number of bland male co-stars. She made every male in the audience feel that she was in love with him, and only him. She was one of a kind, and no one alive comes close to her. Knightley is perhaps one of the most talented actresses we have, and she gives this role her all, but she can't come close to Garbo.

Then there's Knightley's co-star. Her Vronsky is not much more than a boy-toy. As for the actor that plays him, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, I had to look him up to realize I'd seen him in four other films in the last two years. I could not remember him. In his defense, he seems to conjure up a certain compassion for Vronsky -- as he tries to understand and help Anna through her tough times -- that I can't remember in the Garbo film. It's nice, but it comes a bit too late, after setting up the character as a scoundrel. Indeed, most of the largest roles in this film seem to have been cast for looks.

But these quibbles can't stop the overall effectiveness of this film, and the ingenuity and energy with which it was designed, and not to mention Knightley in a hard-working, and rewarding performance. Perhaps those that love literary adaptations will like it more than the rest of us, but perhaps it's enough to inspire more people to read the book.

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