Vanity Fair meets Readers Digest in this opulent bit of conceptual eye candy for those who can manage to overlook, or temporarily abandon Leo Tolstoy’s towering novel.
And for those who didn’t get enough of Keira Knightley’s collarbones in either Atonement or A Dangerous Method, you’re in for a treat. Not only does the gaunt, gorgeous British “actress” bare bones a plenty, but she also gives us an in-depth view of every one of her vertebrae, a view worthy of any medical school anatomy seminar. And God can she wear hats!
Am I being too harsh? At this point I must provide complete disclosure: I am actually reading the eponymous novel by the aforementioned 19th century author. (Yes, I am one of those who, in high school, opted for four readings of Madame Bovary in lieu of the Tolstoy tome. Now I’m catching up). And I can tell you, even though I’m only halfway through it, that Tolstoy’s book is only obliquely about the bored, Russian socialite who falls for a handsome horseman (there’s an old joke in there), gets pregnant—and worse—in rapid succession. Like the eye of many interesting storms, Anna is barely there while all around her Tolstoy drapes blistering analyses of communism, feudalism, capitalism, spoiled Russian royals, jaded high society, farming techniques, horse racing, men, women, love, and marriage. But I digress.
What director Joe Knight and his production team cook up out of Tolstoy’s 800 page borscht is a theoretically intriguing bit of magic realism, in which the film interlaces with stage sets, and stage lighting, mixing “reality” with make believe in often ravishing ways.
It is a diverting bit of fluff, and with a stronger actress in the lead (oh, and maybe some actual chemistry between the love interests) it might have ascended into a successful bit of over-the-top dramatics. Instead it stars impossibly beautiful hats, jewels, gowns, and suits, worn by impossibly beautiful men and women. Knightley’s lush bottom lip quivers petulantly, an acting trick she employs increasingly as the film wears on and her acting skills have been exhausted. But such ingenue tics just don’t cut it.
She simply isn’t the ample, vibrant, voluptuous presence that Tolstoy’s Karenina is, and with her lover Bronsky (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, an actor even prettier than Knightley) there is no chemistry. None.
We are to believe that these two are so blitheringly and completely in love that all of Moscow is swept up in their dangerous alliance. “No way,” to quote Tolstoy. Only Jude Law, as Karenina’s cuckold husband, manages some dignity and presence. Plus he looks magnificent in top hat and tails.
The attempt to integrate the mechanics of stagecraft, via a “set” that is actually a theater, was often an interesting device. But again, with such weak actors to hang the magic on, the attempt must, in the end fail. And I’m not even going to go into the neutering of the rich, nuanced literary classic that was sacrificed for Keira’s collarbones. It was diverting, but no Anna Karenina.