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There's something inherently theatrical in retelling a classic literary tale, so it's fitting that director Joe Wright goes literally theatrical in "Anna Karenina," a fast-moving and eye-popping adaptation of the great Leo Tolstoy novel of love, adultery and societal pressures in Imperial Russia.
Wright places all the action of "Anna Karenina" in a massive and empty theater, with dizzying choreography and camera movements to take us from scene to scene. Every inch of the theater gets used, from grand balls in the audience space to gritty street life in the catwalks while the most intimate moments are played out on the stage for all of St. Petersburg to watch and, of course, they all are watching intently.
What they are watching is Anna (played by Keira Knightley, Wright's star in "Atonement"), the beautiful young wife of the morally upright government official Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), slowly being seduced by the handsome Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). At first, the flirtations are harmless enough, but soon Alexei issues a stern warning: "You may, by indiscretion, give the world occasion to talk about you." In Russian high society, that's perhaps the most serious crime imaginable.
The society ladies have a different candidate for Vronsky's affections: the innocent Kitty (Alicia Vikander). Kitty is smitten with Vronsky at first, which infuriates the man who truly loves her, Nikolai Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who has rejected St. Petersburg society for honest living on a farm.
Meanwhile, Anna's brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen, Knightley's Mr. Darcy in Wright's 2005 version of "Pride and Prejudice"), regularly cheats on his doting wife, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). The gossips of St. Petersburg take this in stride, making the hypocrisy of their harsh judgments of Anna all the more biting.
Wright's impressive staging creates a merry-go-round of color and sound, as Sarah Greenwood's intricate set design and Jacqueline Durran's luscious period costumes dance before cinematographer Seamus McGarvey's cameras. Wright also benefits from screenwriter Tom Stoppard's lucid condensation of Tolstoy's massive work (963 pages in the paperback copy I recently received in the mail, compared with 199 pages in the bound edition of Stoppard's screenplay).
Knightley, who at 27 has spent half her life in front of the camera, blossoms here into a true leading lady. Her fine-boned features suit the opulent settings, and her performance captures Anna's fiery dismissal of societal rules and the pain she suffers for breaking them.
This "Anna Karenina" works because it doesn't just try to illustrate a dusty tome. It breathes new life into Tolstoy's characters and reignites the passion that generations of readers have felt for them.
Joe Wright's lush, theatrical adaptation rekindles the fire of the classic Russian novel.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, Nov. 30.
Rating • R for some sexuality and violence.
Running time • 130 minutes.