Judging from Joe Wright's adaptation, Tolstoy's big book would have made a pretty good opera, or maybe a movie musical. With a reflexive Tom Stoppard screenplay, the film is set on variations of a theatrical stage, with occasional glimpses of the real world and departures into self-conscious mannerisms that almost, but don't quite, burst into a song-and-dance production number. Too bad they don't just go for it. As it is, this bold but gimmicky concept serves as an efficient tool for paring down a half million words into a manageable two-hours-plus. And though it distracts from the realism that makes the novel so immersive, the artificiality does highlight the most genuine aspect of the movie — the performances.
That includes Keira Knightley, who is luminous, headstrong, and tormented — perhaps sometimes too much so. As the stunning, diamond-bedecked wife of the uptight bureaucrat Karenin (Jude Law), she ecstatically ruins her life by succumbing to the passion of Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Their scenes together ring excruciatingly true. Though Taylor-Johnson seems too callow and looks a little like Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein, he's a good foil for Anna's outbursts.
Some of the secondary characters, however, quietly steal the show. Serving as much-needed comic relief, Matthew Macfadyen injects exuberance into Oblonsky, Anna's genial, hopelessly hedonistic brother. On the darker side, Law's cuckolded husband, despite the filmmakers' efforts to depict him as a joyless prig (his reusable condom is a sinister touch), earns sympathy with his suppressed jealousy and grief. His character shows the most dramatic development; by the end he's almost tragic. Less impressive, Domhnall Gleeson as the bumptious idealist (and Tolstoy's stand-in) Levin doesn't make much of an impression, nor does Alicia Vikander as his bride, Kitty. Their virtuous bliss should provide an ironic counterpoint to Anna's forbidden love, but here it seems gratuitous.
The best line of the film, though, goes to Levin's brother Nikolai (David Wilmot). A dissolute revolutionary on his deathbed, he manages to croak out, "Romantic love will be the last illusion of the new order!" Maybe that's the point of Wright and Stoppard's self-conscious staginess: a kind of Brechtian alienation effect that exposes that illusion even as it extols it.
PETER KEOUGH » PKEOUGH@PHX.COM
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