MOVIE REVIEW: Anna Karenina' is pretty but lacks literary substance


This film image released by Focus Features shows Keira Knightley in a scene from "Anna Karenina." (AP Photo/Focus Features, Laurie Sparham)



3 stars out of 4

While far from the most frequently adapted novel of all-time (this is merely its 12th incarnation), any movie based on Lev (Leo) Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" becomes an instant lightning rod for criticism only stories of this breadth and magnitude can summon.

Almost always played out as a protracted, bodice-filled think-piece, "AK" is considered to be a sacred cow among literary works (some call it the finest novel ever written) and no adaptation, however earnest and well-executed, will ever be good enough for print and film snobs. Fine -- save yourself the time, stay home and read the book again.

Many have already found multiple faults with director Joe Wright's new film, generally citing style over substance and beauty over truth. It has too much of this and not enough of that and Keira Knightley is no Greta Garbo. It's a flashy, irreverent gimmick that looks more like an overlong fragrance commercial than thoughtful literary piece -- guilty on all counts. This is not your grandparents' "AK" and for that reason alone Wright and company should be commended. It's high time someone blew the dust off of this relic and shook things up.

The biggest complaint is that the story is presented on an ever-changing stage where the performers share space with stuff that shouldn't be seen (props, booms, lights, technicians, etc.) and they're right. For the first 30 minutes Wright puts too much attention into the "how" instead of the "what" and it is a considerable distraction but never enough to prevent figuring out who's who and what they're about. The choreography required to pull off this portion of the film was immense and modern dance fans will find it astonishing and rewarding.

Once Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard ("Brazil," "Shakespeare in Love") jettison the bells and whistles and settle into the meat of the narrative, "AK" starts to play out more like Tolstoy's novel than any other previous film version. The period trappings are still there (lots of frills, corsets, antiquated mannerisms and overdone facial hair) but the timeless messages and universal commentary on society and morality snap with verve and bite.

This isn't just another story about "what the heart wants," but what the heart does once it gets what it wants and what to do when it's not wanted anymore. Oh yeah, there's also that pesky, disapproving opinion of others thing that never straying far from the margins.

For those who have never read the book or seen any of the other adaptations, this version will be a huge revelation. Even though written in 1877, the content of "AK" still fits in with the present day mindset often (sadly) practiced today: disposable love, the shortcomings of fleeting lust, the abandonment of family for cheap thrills and the intrusive poking around by outsiders where they don't belong. As patrician and hidebound as it may come off, young folks (or old ones for that matter) can learn a thing or two here while coming to the realization there's always a price to pay, whether it be in hard currency, opulent lifestyle, community standing or self-worth.

This is Wright's third collaboration with Knightley ("Pride and Prejudice," "Atonement") and although they generally do fine by each other, Anna is far beyond her limited reach. While certainly an ideal physical candidate, Knightley just doesn't have the depth of emotion or wide range this role demands. This isn't so much a knock on Knightley; few if any actresses young enough to play Anna (save for Jessica Chastain or Natalie Portman) could pull it off convincingly.

As the two men in Anna's life, Jude Law as her wise, poker-face husband and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the impetuous lover service their respective roles well. Law is especially effective when saying nothing and only relying on reactive facial expressions and damning icy blue stares.

It's unlikely anyone mentioned above will be considered for Oscars but there's more than a good chance Wright's technical teams (photographic, production, set and costume design) will all be big favorites for Academy Awards. This is by far the best-looking movie of 2012. (Focus Features)