The plot, for anyone who slept through Classic Lit 101, is about infidelity on the part of a wife, bored with her bureaucratic husband, and a dashingly handsome officer with low morals and blond curls. The main male roles are Karenin, played stolidly, as written, by Jude Law; and va-va-va-voom! Vronsky, Count Vronsky, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. As Aaron Johnson before his marriage, he was so good as John Lennon in "Nowhere Boy," but here he is a mannequin with muscles, over which a triangular uniform drapes well. The titular lead is Anna, played woodenly by Keira Knightley, who tries to smolder with only a stick-like frame. Anyone who knows anything about women's roles in 19th-century lit knows that Anna Karenina dies in the end as punishment, not for breaking the law, but for breaking the rules, as one of the ladies of society reminds her before ostracizing poor Anna. This version of Tolstoy's novel does not stray from that plot.
However, it strays from film alone into operetta territory and takes risks by mounting this film on a stage. From the moment real curtains part on the silver screen, showing the filmed, heavy velvet curtain rising on a proscenium stage, this "Anna Karenina" offers a patchwork quilt of artsy and stagey possibilities. For on that stage a train, iced in snow like a cake in fondant, chugs into the station; a horse race caroms into the footlights, crashing through the fourth wall; ballroom dancers career about the floor. Scrims open to the whole of the Russian countryside or close on libraries and love nests. The catwalks and backstage, lassoed in ropes, add to the territory inhabited by the actors.
The production, designed by Sarah Greenwood, is sumptuous; it includes backgrounds right out of French Impressionism. Jacqueline Durran's costumes range from wicked blacks to the meringue of an ingenue's ball gown. Seamus McGarvey's cinematography is stunning, not only lighting the blue damask of walls and settees, but also the lighting on the magnificent jewels worn by the aristocracy, especially Anna's necklaces and earbobs. All three technicians worked with Joe Wright on "Atonement" and "Pride and Prejudice," in which Knightly starred. "Anna Karenina" will not please everyone, but it will give pause by its theatricality.