Joe Wright may be the hyperkinetic director of Anna Karenina’s 12th screen iteration, but another credit should jump out, too: screenwriter Tom Stoppard. The idea seems to be one of credibility, as if the producers were assuring us, “Don’t worry that this hotshot filmmaker is abusing Leo Tolstoy with showy long takes, Keira Knightley’s funky jaw and other modernist vices, because the whole enterprise is anchored by an actual writer who actually read the book.” The thing is, Stoppard’s contribution is mostly his name and reputation, his adaptation little more than a gutting of a massive doorstop, an expert summary of its events. And an expert summary, to paraphrase an old lit professor, will get you an F.
Wright and Stoppard’s Anna Karenina doesn’t deserve a failing grade: It’s far more watchable than it should be, considering neither director nor writer is remotely able to get inside the emotions and subtleties of their source. They’re not the first to whittle Tolstoy down to pure plot and movie star vamping: the first (of two!) Greta Garbo takes on the novel, amusingly retitled Love, actually tacks on a happy ending. Knightley, reuniting with her Pride & Prejudice and Atonement boss, smolders just fine as she goes from kept wife (to Jude Law’s balding, passive-aggressive cuckold Alexei) to passionate affairee (with Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s narcissistic Count Vronsky) to disgraced future train meat.
She’s mostly on her own. Though Law knows how to shade in the nuances not in the script, Taylor-Johnson is listless when he’s not OD’ing on self-love, while Matthew Macfadyen, as Anna’s bureaucrat brother, seems to be spliced in from a far wackier film. A wacky tone would better suit Wright; if he’s good for anything, it’s not amping up classic lit, but helming Eurotrash art-action films like the enjoyably nutso Hanna. Here, he busts out Max Ophüls-style long takes, but forgets that Ophüls laced his acrobatic camera movements with real, deep feeling. Wright doesn’t seem to care about the material insofar as it allows him to present a “bold new vision.” And so his Anna Karenina involves cutaways to model trains and scenes that take place on a stage for no reason than “Hey, wouldn’t that shit be so weird in an adaptation of Anna Karenina?”