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Love Crimes

Anna Karenina (2012)

Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard's bracing adaptation of "Anna Karenina" throws its roots out in all directions. Set 90 percent of the time in an impossible theatrical limbo of sets and stagecraft - in which reality warps every time anyone opens a door - and the other 10 percent in a calm pastoral outdoors where nature seems to have paused for breath, the film gingers up its costume drama with luscious practical effects and a Brechtian grit. Threads from relatively unusual suspects such as Richard Attenborough's "Oh! What a Lovely War" mix with the modern self-conscious fizz of Baz Luhrmann and the model train work of Francis Ford Coppola's "Dracula." It's a big risk, and it pays off more often than not.

The pastoral contrasts are there to give the story's secondary and almost Karenina-free plot line its due, in which mild-mannered Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) escapes from the artificial social snobberies of St. Petersburg and the hick coarseness of Moscow by returning to the soil. He also finds a simple emotional peace with Kitty (Alicia Vikander, no less vivacious here than in "A Royal Affair" - which is to say a lot.). This bucolic life is set against the impossibly tangled emotional wreck of Anna (Keira Knightley), wife to Karenin (Jude Law) while mistress to Prince Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, resembling David Hemmings at his most rakish), who is coming apart at the seams. A fated appointment at Nizhegorod railway station awaits.

For at least the first hour, Mr. Wright deliberately shoves the film along at a rapid click, leaving audiences to try and keep up with the sprawling cast of characters and acclimatize to the shifting rules of this particular universe as best they are able. Gorgeously shot by Seamus McGarvey, who catches every glint of light from the fabulous costumes as well as the David Lean flavor of the landscapes, the effect is hypnotic - sometimes surreal. Anna and Vronsky - poised on the brink of their affair - dance a stylized pas de deux that seals their futures and which seems mostly elbows and knees, wheeling through a ballroom of uncomfortably stationary onlookers while the camera maneuvers around the backstage mechanics.

This theatricality brings the best out of Ms. Knightley, who to judge by her recent roles has spotted the mileage she gets from adding a little masochism to her acting style. Her Anna is more than confused: She's genuinely self-destructive, eventually pushed over the edge by a theater's worth of opprobrium much like the one Glenn Close got in "Dangerous Liaisons."

On the other hand, all this puts serious distance between the audience and certain aspects of the story. The romance aspects are squashed way down in favor of something closer to beautiful pessimism. This added bitterness can be a struggle, but there's bravery in Messrs. Wright and Stoppard's choosing to make the forces of destiny so explicit that you can actually see it whirring. Somewhere in the catwalk above and beyond Anna's tragedy, ropes and pulleys control the scenery and props of her life. What transpires could have occurred no other way than this - the scriptwriter said so.


Opens on Sept. 7 in Britain and on Nov. 16 in Manhattan.

Directed by Joe Wright; written by Tom Stoppard, based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy; director of photography, Seamus McGarvey; edited by Melanie Ann Oliver; music by Dario Marianelli; choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui; production design by Sarah Greenwood; costumes by Jacqueline Durran; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Paul Webster; released by Focus Features. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes. This film is rated 12A by B.B.F.C. and R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Keira Knightley (Anna Karenina), Jude Law (Karenin), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Vronsky), Kelly Macdonald (Dolly), Matthew Macfadyen (Oblonsky), Domhnall Gleeson (Levin), Ruth Wilson (Princess Betsy Tverskoy), Alicia Vikander (Kitty), Olivia Williams (Countess Vronsky), Emily Watson (Countess Lydia Ivanovna).


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