Review: Bloodless 'Anna Karenina' sapped of emotion

Aaron Taylor-Johnson, left, and Keira Knightley star in "Anna Karenina."

Photo by Laurie Sparham, © Focus Features

Aaron Taylor-Johnson, left, and Keira Knightley star in "Anna Karenina."

A bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, adapted from Leo Tolstoy's timeless novel by Academy Award winner Tom Stoppard. The story ...

Rating: R for some sexuality and violence

Length: 130 minutes

Released: November 16, 2012 Limited

Cast: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen

Director: Joe Wright

Writer: Leo Tolstoy, Tom Stoppard

More info and showtimes »

You know there is something seriously wrong with "Anna Karenina" when you start rooting for the train. By the middle of director Joe Wright's adaptation of the Tolstoy novel, every time Anna leaves the house, an unvoiced collective wish rises from the audience — silent and yet so fervent it's almost tangible — that maybe, just maybe, she might be heading for the train station early.

"Anna Karenina" is a failure emotionally and dramatically, but not in the usual way of a director's trying to achieve something and falling short. On the contrary, Wright made the movie he wanted to make, and he made it well. It just wasn't worth making. He adopts the strategy of telling the story at a distance, as a stylized piece, and along the way he comes up with beautiful compositions and seamless transitions. His work is audacious and at times impressive, but ultimately, bloodless. If you can't make an audience care about Anna Karenina in a movie called "Anna Karenina," you haven't really made "Anna Karenina."

"Anna Karenina" is presented here as though it were a stage play, but like one as imagined by Busby Berkeley. It begins onstage, and then the camera moves into the set, and we're back in 19th-century imperial Russia. But that stage keeps coming back. Sometimes actors stand at the footlights and address the audience.

Some of the outdoor scenes are painterly — lots of white on white and unreal greens, straight out of a dream. And scenes often begin with a dance or pantomime, presented by the actors directly to the camera. All this is accomplished with panache, enough so that we notice the director and think well of him. But the other result is that we never engage with Anna's journey.

As almost everyone knows, "Anna Karenina" is the tragic story of an upper-class Russian wife and mother who, on a trip to visit relatives, falls insanely and desperately in love with the young Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and it's simply not in her power to resist. She faces a road that she believes will lead to ostracism, humiliation, rejection and, ultimately, damnation, but she gets on it, anyway.

To fully appreciate such a story requires some kind of immersion into its world. When Anna refers to herself as "damned," we need to feel that. Otherwise, we're stuck in our modern viewpoint, thinking, "Gee, this is lousy. Why can't she do what she wants?" And it's precisely those distancing devices that Wright employs that keep the audience from a direct connection with the story.

It is a rather odd thing that the British, of all people, should be so consistently attracted to adapting Russian literature. Russians tend to be open; the British, guarded. We're so used to it we don't notice, but imagine Russians playing the British, and you see the possibility for disjunction. With this in mind, a British production should avoid broadening this disjunction by going in the direction of reservation and distance. Alas, that's where Wright took "Anna Karenina," and the result is a beautiful disaster.

© 2012 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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