Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky and Keira Knightley as Anna portray the fated pair at the center of Leonard Tolstoy's classic story about love and infidelity. (Focus Features)
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* * * Period drama R. 130 minutes. At area theaters.
"Anna Karenina" is a cinematic jewel. Leo Tolstoy's tale about a married socialite's affair with a calvary officer during late 1800s Russia is expertly faceted by director Joe Wright, his gifted crew and writer Tom Stoppard.
Only there is an imperfection to this willfully theatrical outing, one that hardly requires a jeweler's loupe to find. For all its desirous sighs and longing looks, there's no heat to this icy gem built around Anna and Vronsky's affair.
Wright's go-to actress, Keira Knightley, portrays the doomed heroine who lives in St. Petersburg with her young son and husband, Karenin. A bearded Jude Law plays the ramrod government official and glacial mate.
When Anna learns her brother Oblonsky, or "Stiva" (Matthew Macfadyen), has cheated on his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), she travels to Moscow to intervene.
On the train, she meets Countess Vronsky (Olivia Williams), an aristocrat not particularly vexed by her own reputation for liaisons. When their train pulls into the station, the countess introduces Anna to son Vronksy, who has been mildly courting her niece Kitty (Alicia Vikander).
Aaron Taylor-Johnson is Vronsky. Or rather, the lovely Brit so winning in "Kick-Ass" and "Nowhere Boy" is so not Vronsky. His dark hair has been died a softer blond. He wears an unconvincing moustache above his voluptuous mouth. Sure Kitty is smitten. He's so Tiger Beat. But Anna, really?
But before the fated pair ever meets, the director introduces a bolder conceit: Much of "Anna Karenina" plays out in the realm of theater. The action in Moscow and St. Petersburg unfolds not just on stage but also backstage, in the fly space and on the catwalk. After all, high society is about being seen, about performing roles and auditioning for greater status.
It's a clever point. Moreover, it allows for some truly rich and handsome images: a pounding horse-race that finds a rider and his steed toppled in the footlights for one.
The opening scene of Oblonsky moving through the bureaucratic office he manages, with its repeated movements, feels like a nod to Pina Bausch's dance-theater.
Tolstoy's novel brims with ideas about wealth and work, love and infidelity. It's hard not to miss his feminist point that when the tables turn and Anna needs someone to intercede with Karenin, as she did with Dolly on her brother's behalf, it won't go as well.
Thank goodness for Domhnall Gleeson's gentle turn as Oblonsky's friend Levin. The ginger-haired landowner is the movie's warmest figure He arrives from his farm to Moscow intent on proposing to Kitty only to be rebuffed because the young woman is taken with Vronsky.
Tolstoy's novel has aching romance, paradigm-shifting politics and still challenging ideas. "Anna Karenina" should speak to us completely. Instead it lost us at Anna and Vronsky's "hello."
Lisa Kennedy: 303-954-1567, email@example.com or twitter.com/bylisakennedy