All the world’s a stage—at least that’s the case in Joe Wright’s ostentatiously overdone adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s seminal Russian novel. Taking a page from Jean Renoir’s The Golden Coach, the film opens before a proscenium, the luscious red curtains parting to reveal an initially spare set that is soon filled with two-plus hours of “wondrous” sights blurring the line between cinema and theater. Meanwhile, Tom Stoppard’s screenplay, streamlined though it inevitably is, manages to pack in more incident than most film adaptations: The politically charged parallel story of lovelorn landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) is given equal narrative emphasis alongside the tragic romantic triangle between the eponymous socialite (Keira Knightley), wealthy army officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Anna’s cuckold husband, Karenin (Jude Law).
Scenery-shifting location changes and Max Ophüls–esque camera tracks are prevalent; an extras-populated civil-servant office becomes a high-end restaurant during the course of one single sinuous shot. But the more the visual ephemera piles up, the more the emotional thrust of the story gets buried beneath all the monotonous pageantry. (Anna’s many tête-à-têtes with her two lovers—especially a should-be-dizzying dance-seduction scene—are frigid pomp without any real heat.) It never feels like we’re watching people pressed on by the burdens of society and history, just extravagantly costumed puppets navigating Wright’s colorfully shallow bag of tricks.
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