Great works of literature tend to endure on the strength of intangibles like prose style and interior monologue, but that’s never stopped filmmakers from trying to adapt them, usually with mediocre results. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is a perennial, having been filmed at least two dozen times—and Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement), director of the latest version, clearly knows it. Valiantly attempting a fresh take on the material, he’s devised an unusual theatrical conceit, in which selected scenes unfold on a proscenium stage, with techies visibly wheeling backdrops and furniture into place; other scenes are shot on location in the usual way, though even these often feature intricate choreography that suggests a musical without any songs. Alas, all this huffing and puffing only underscores the absent genius of the novel’s author.
As ever, students too lazy to read will find a decent abridgement of the basic plot. Keira Knightley does a credible job as the title character, a 19th-century Russian aristocrat who abandons her stodgy husband (Jude Law) for the dashing young Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, best known as the lead in Kick-Ass and far too callow for this role). A somewhat parallel plot, intended as counterpoint, details the bumpy courtship—beginning with a rejected marriage proposal—of young farmer Levin (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan) and his beloved Kitty (Alicia Vikander), who’s also smitten with Vronsky. Carnal bliss leads to isolation, despair and perhaps the most famous fictional suicide of all time. It’s Anna Karenina, all right.
Trouble is, the story itself—stripped of Tolstoy’s ruminations and digressions—has always been a fairly commonplace portrait of infidelity’s wreckage. (As usual with film adaptations of this novel, the parallel plot involving Levin and Kitty has been whittled down to almost nothing.) No less a figure than multiple Tony-winner Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay, but even he can’t translate the ineffable, and Wright’s seemingly arbitrary shifts between naturalism and artifice come across as desperate rather than inspired. It’s an honorable effort, beautiful and earnest but fundamentally hollow. Leave the great books alone.