There’s a coldness to the new “Anna Karenina” that has nothing to do with the white stuff piled up along the streets of 19th-century St. Petersburg. It’s the chill that comes from a director entranced with his own talent. Joe Wright has made five feature films now, but only the first, 2005’s “Pride & Prejudice,” felt wholly unstudied and free. The new film staggers under such a weight of self-conscious visual style that the story never connects with a viewer’s emotions. Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel has been filmed often, but this is the first time it takes place in a snow globe.
It’s also the third Wright movie to star Keira Knightley, an actress who has rewarded him before (in “Pride” and 2007’s “Atonement”) and who does her damnedest to burst through the film’s plate-glass remove. It’s not her fault she doesn’t have the soul of Greta Garbo in the 1935 version of “Anna Karenina” (or an earlier silent adaptation, “Love”). Who does? Knightley’s Anna is a beautiful, shallow songbird, married to a stodgy bureaucrat (Jude Law behind priggish spectacles as Karenin) and flitting through the upper-class whirl of late Imperial Russia as though she owned it, which she does.
Anna is worldly and chic, but like her bourgeois literary cousin Emma Bovary, she’s naive enough to still believe in romantic love. She resists the seductive come-ons of the young army officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) until she doesn’t; then she follows her heart to social ostracism, paranoia, and ruin. Wright, though, understands that Tolstoy was writing about more than one woman’s passion — that the novelist was painting his country and times on an immense canvas — and that Anna’s drama is just the central panel of a vast, teeming triptych.
Actually, Wright goes for a different metaphor. His Big Idea is that Anna and her circle inhabit a world so artificial, so cued to outward appearance and behavior, that it could be a theatrical stage. So it is a theatrical stage, with curtains rising to reveal the characters at breakfast and train journeys in front of patently fake backdrops. The walls of the rooms stretch up into the darkness of the lighting grid; the famous horse race clatters across the boards. When characters go “outside,” they mill around with the extras backstage and up in the catwalks.
It’s a dazzling gambit, filmed with confidence and craft, and it underscores how everyone in this society is looking at and performing for everyone else. (There’s a marvelous shot of Vronsky watching Anna through opera glasses, the lenses glowing with lust.) It also wears out its welcome in about five minutes. Wright fetishizes style at the expense of content — he’s on record as saying naturalism is for sissies, more or less — but the studied perfection of his approach in “Anna Karenina” does nothing but call attention to itself. Lars von Trier’s “Dogville” (another tale of a woman punished for breaking the rules) unfolded on an even more minimalist stage set, and Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!” was an orgy of theatrical excess, but those movies are saved by their sheer inability to say uncle. Their craziness is their risk and reward. Wright’s great curse is that he’s a tasteful revolutionary.
“Anna Karenina” does well by its outward trappings. Tom Stoppard’s dialogue snaps and snarls (but rarely bites down), the costumes are to die for, and the film as a whole moves along at a decent clip. The performances are pleasing without springing to full-blooded life: Matthew Macfadyen as Anna’s happily hedonistic brother, Kelly Macdonald as his saintly wife, Alicia Vikander (soon to be seen as Queen Caroline of Denmark in “A Royal Affair”) as the virginal Kitty, Olivia Williams a frosty Countess Vronskaya. With his doe eyes and peroxide perm, Taylor-Johnson’s Vronsky may be too much the preening boy-toy for some viewers, but it’s an acceptable interpretation. Anna’s infatuation is the teenage crush she never got to have.
And the film does eventually move out into the actual world, underscoring with heavy hand the honesty — the humble reality — of the aristocrat-farmer Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and his connection to the land. When Kitty leaves St. Petersburg to toil in the fields with the peasants and her new husband, you feel Wright finally relax his grip and let Tolstoy’s dreams of utopia shine through.
The rest — well, it’s a lavishly produced slog, and it may fool the Motion Picture Academy’s craft branches and audiences taken with posh surfaces, but it won’t fool anyone hoping for what the novel achieves: a portrait of a society with a doomed woman pinned to its center. Knightley is able to capture many aspects of Anna — her kindness, her superficiality, her perceptiveness — but the tragic dimension eludes her. Maybe she’s not yet there as an actress; maybe Wright’s smothering visual brilliance won’t let her get there. When Anna’s “huge and merciless” fate comes rolling along in the final moments, it hits with a sickening force that, ironically, jolts the film to life.
Too late. In the end, Wright’s “Anna Karenina” is a celebration of its director’s unique gifts and a demonstration of what those gifts can fail to achieve. All great movies are alike, but every unsuccessful one screws up in its own way.