Joe Wright’s adaptation of Anna Karenina opens with the theatrical snap of curtains on a proscenium stage: In one rolling shot, the stage is transformed into a children’s schoolroom, its wings into an adulterer’s sex nook, the catwalks into a bustling street scene, and the greenrooms into the receiving quarters of Mrs. Anna Karenina, played well enough by Keira Knightley. It sets the tone of a film striving for style over substance—a film that, however pretty, fails to pack the emotional punch of Tolstoy’s great romantic tragedy.
The year is 1874, and Karenina has just received word that her brother is a sex addict. With the permission of her brainy husband Karenin (stunningly portrayed by Jude Law), she travels to Moscow to help smooth over her brother’s marital woes. There, she meets the stylish Count Vronsky, a dashing young cavalry officer sporting the worst dye job in Russia. The two share an intimate ballroom dance on an empty floor, which is Wright’s shorthand for “much humping to come.”
The costumes, sets, even props are enchanting—a fan carries the erratic flutter of a heartbeat, and Karenin’s condom box deftly conveys the weight of a dead sex life.
After an internal struggle, Karenina falls headfirst into a love affair. This is where Tolstoy’s work sings and Wright falls flat: Without Karenina’s internal narrative, the film skims over the guilt, shame, rage, and “fuck you” courage that churns her insides while she unabashedly loves the wrong man at a time when affluent women were encouraged to cheat but ruined by divorce. We’re left with tears, petulance, paranoia, and slobbery makeup kisses.
While Anna Karenina may disappoint readers, it will appeal to modern narcissists who are convinced that the world is their stage and everyone around them a rapt audience watching the drama of their lives unfold.