Anna Karenina: Joe Wright’s Troubled Adaptation, Starring Keira Knightley

Joe Wright’s new big-screen version of “Anna Karenina” is a major artistic disappointment, a theoretically bold, but overly theatrical rendition that’s not particularly touching or engaging, considering the level and quality of the literary source material.

The combination of Tom Stoppard’s modernist but misguided screenplay, Joe Wright’s flawed direction, and Keira Knightley’s mediocre performance (though it’s not entirely her fault) result in a feature that not only fails to convey the spirit of Tolstoy’s great novel, but may have hard times appealing to younger generations of viewers, who have not seen the Divine Garbo in one of her best-known roles.

There have been at least half a dozen movies based on Tolstoy’s masterpiece. The titular role was played, among others, by Garbo in 1935 opposite Fredric March, Vivien Leigh in 1947, and Jacqueline Bisset’s little-seen interpretation in 1985, co-starring Christopher Reeves.

I don’t know who spreads the Oscar rumors for this weak interpretation, but the critical response to the movie at the Toronto Film Fest, where it world-premiered, was decidedly mixed.

The film marks the third collaboration of director Wright and actress Knightley, following the relative commercial successes of “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement.” I had strong reservations over Wright and Knightly collaboration on the 2007 “Atonement,” but by comparison, “Anna Karenina” is a much weaker film.

What has proven to be a timeless story, though set in 1874, the tale explores the romantic and obsessive nature of love, while illuminating the lavish, sharply stratified society of imperial Russia at the time, particularly as far as social class and sexual mores are concerned.

Early on, the vibrant and beautiful, Anna Karenina (Knightley) seems to have it all: She is the wife of the handsome and powerfyl Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), a high-ranking government official to whom she has borne a son, and her social standing as member of  St. Petersburg elite society is widely established.

Anna takes a trip to to Moscow, when her philandering brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen)  asks her to come and help save his marriage to Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). En route, Anna encounters the Countess Vronsky (Olivia Williams), who is met at the train station by her son, the dashing cavalry officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). When Anna is introduced to Vronsky, there is undeniably strong and mutual spark of instant attraction.

The Moscow household is also visited by Oblonsky’s best friend Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a sensitive and compassionate landowner, who is in love with Dolly’s younger sister, Kitty (Alicia Vikander).  He proposes to Kitty, but she is infatuated with Vronsky. Devastated, Levin returns to his Pokrovskoe estate and immerses himself in farm work. Kitty herself is heartbroken when, at the season’s grand ball, she spots Vronsky lusting for Anna. To her surpirse, Anna more than reciprocates, despite the fact that she is a “respectable” married society lady.

Afterwards, Anna struggles to regain her equilibrium by rushing home to St. Petersburg, but Vronsky follows her. She attempts to resume her familial and maternal duties.  However, consumed with love and desire for Vronsky, she begins a passionate affair, which scandalizes St. Petersburg society.

Publicly humiliated, and, under the circumstances, placed in an untenable position, Karenin gives his wife an ultimatum. In attempting to attain happiness, the decisions Anna makes pierce the veneer of a rigid society, reverberating with romantic, and inevitably tragic consequences for all those around her.

The film’s technical values are nice to look at, due to the work of the creative team, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (“The Avengers”), production designer Sarah Greenwood (“Sherlock Holmes”), editor Melanie Ann Oliver (“Jane Eyre”),  Oscar-winning composer Dario Marianelli (“Atonement”), and costume designer Jacqueline Durran (“Pride & Prejudice”).

However, under Wright’s misguided conception, none of the actors, all reliable in the past in various screen roles, is giving a strong performance, least of all Knightley, who in theory is ideally cast.

Stoppard’s dialogue, while honorably attempting to modernize the old text, sounds too detached and artificial in evoking the strong feelings and psychological journeys embarked by all of the characters, not to mention his failure to convey vividly the broader social contexts in which they live and operate.

Going through the novel’s basic motions, this “Anna Karenina” curiously lacks emotional power, failing to evoke strong involvement with the protagonist and her dramatic downfall.  In their “dry” conception, the filmmakers have all but drained Tolstoy’s story out of its melodramatic juices, which account for why the book has continued to hold its spell for so many decades .