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'Anna Karenina' may be too clever for its own good

Anna Karenina

Director: Joe Wright

Cast: Keira Knightley, Jude Law

Rated: R (sexuality, violence)

Running time: 130 min.

Posted 4:28pm on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012

All the world's a stage, very literally, in Joe Wright's wildly theatrical adaptation of Anna Karenina.

If you thought the director's five-and-a-half-minute tracking shot in Atonement was show-offy, you ain't seen nothing yet. Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) have taken Leo Tolstoy's literary behemoth about love, betrayal and death among the elite in imperial Russia and boldly set it almost entirely within a decaying theater.

The inspiration comes from the notion that the members of high society conducted themselves as if they were performing onstage.

The result is technically dazzling, a marvel of timing and choreography.

Anna Karenina is at once cleverly contained and breathtakingly fluid; it's crammed with rich, intimate detail yet moves with a boundless energy that suggests anything is possible. A character walks across the floor and people dress him as he goes. Sets slide into an empty space at the precise moment to create a cozy surrounding.

And the sense of movement is just as memorable from a sound design perspective: the rapid flapping of a fan seamlessly transforms into the thundering of horse hooves, for example.

But wondrous as all this artifice is, it's also a huge distraction. The self-consciousness of the structure keeps us at arm's length emotionally. Snow globes and Fabergé eggs are just as tidy and ornate but more capable of eliciting a response from the viewer. Rather than feeling the suffering of the adulterous Anna (Keira Knightley), we're more likely to notice how beautiful the suffering looks.

And eventually the trickery actually becomes a bit predictable. When Anna's cuckolded husband Karenin (Jude Law) tears up a desperate letter from his wife and tosses the pieces in the air, you just know they're going to come down as snowflakes. And they do.

A refresher for anyone who may have forgotten the book since high school. The year is 1874. Anna is a prominent member of St. Petersburg society, wife of a respected government official and mother of an adorable little boy.

Things seem pretty comfortable until she takes a trip to Moscow to visit her philandering brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen). Upon arrival at the train station, she experiences an instant spark with Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson in an ill-advised blond dye job), a handsome, flirtatious cavalry officer. Soon her virtue goes out the window as she launches into a brazen, full-blown affair with this younger, single man.

The sense of excess that pervades Anna Karenina extends to strong supporting cast, including Olivia Williams as Vronsky's meddlesome countess mother, Kelly Macdonald as Oblonsky's loyal wife and Shirley Henderson as a viciously judgmental opera patron. They're all working as hard as their surroundings -- if only all that effort resulted in an emotional payoff.

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