(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: Joe Wright brings Count Leo Tolstoy's oft- filmed tragedy ANNA KARENINA to the screen with an adaptation written by Tom Stoppard. In spite of some unusual touches that should have brightened things up a bit, this version is tedious and feels overly long. The acting is wooden in a way that shuts the viewer out of the action. Stoppard's touches serve only to pull the viewer away from the story and act as a distraction. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10

In BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM, Keira Knightley was a promising new talent with an attractive smile. It was clear that director Joe Wright was entranced by that smile. When he directed her in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE she gave a big smile showing off her teeth in virtually every scene in which she was not sad or angry. If there was no good reason for her not to smile, she did. Sadly, this was not the same thing as acting. But deep acting was not required for that role. Now Joe Wright has directed Keira Knightley in a new version of ANNA KARENINA and both are paying the price for Knightley's deficits. In fact, there is very little emotive acting where it is needed in the tragic ANNA KARENINA. But Wright was unlucky to release his film while Terence Davies' THE DEEP BLUE SEA was still in recent memory. That film, based on the play by Terence Rattigan, has a plot that is very much parallel to that of ANNA KARENINA but starred Rachel Weisz. Seeing both films emphasizes the gulf between the acting abilities of the two women.

In 19th century Tsarist Russia, Anna Karenina (played by Knightley) is in a comfortable but dull marriage to Karenin (Jude Law), a stodgy public official. When asked to help save her brother's marriage, Anna goes to Moscow to help counsel her sister-in-law. Her brother Stiva has had an affair, and the stable Anna is trusted to set things back to right. On the way to Moscow she meets Countess Vronsky who tells her of the Countess's son, Count Vronsky. Anna meets Vronsky at the end of her trip. The count cuts a striking figure in his military uniform. Anna is immediately attracted to somewhat disreputable count. Soon it would appear that Stiva is not the only member of the family who has a wandering eye. Once she has been with Vronsky Anna does not want to go back to Karenin.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who plays Count Vronsky, emotes less than Knightley, but since the story is her tragedy his acting is less important. There are good actors aplenty in this film, but Joe Wright seems not to be the director to be able to coax affecting performances. Kelly Macdonald is certainly a fine actress, and she was able to doff her Irish enunciation for NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Wright allows her to use a strong Irish accent throughout.

All this makes it hard enough for the viewer to lose himself in the tragedy. But Stoppard gives the story the conceit that it is really a stage play being performed. One moment actors will seem to be in the real surroundings and the next they will be standing on a stage or exiting backstage. In an otherwise realistic looking bedroom there will suddenly be footlights along the floor. Anna will be at home and rip open the curtains. Oddly, the nature outside seems to be rushing past her window. When the camera returns to Anna she is inside a train car. These gimmicky segues are there to be admired but are counter-productive distraction. If the drama were doing its job these cute artistic touches would be clever. Wright is having enough trouble telling the story without them.

It is hard to condemn a movie that when it works beguiles the eye with 19th century Russian splendor. The characters are so cold and distant--figuratively as well as literally--that Wright needs to do all he can to hold the audience's emotions. He just did manage. On a modest budget THE DEEP BLUE SEA told much the same story and made it compelling. ANNA KARENINA threw some glitz at the story, but did not make this viewer care. I rate ANNA KARENINA a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10 and recommend you try one of the other 25 screen versions listed in the IMDB.

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					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2012 Mark R. Leeper