Distant approach to ‘Anna Karenina’ lacking

Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” has been such a draw for filmmakers and actresses over the years, you might wonder why we need another account of the wayward Russian lady who sacrifices everything for love.

Like it or hate it, this new version of the tale does take a fresh approach. Instead of realism, director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard want to remind you that you’re watching a story, so they set the tale within an old theater, where the characters are actors on a stage.

We’re frequently reminded of the theatricality of this society, even if the movie travels into bedrooms and wheat fields and trains. Perhaps this is meant to suggest how society’s dictates force everyone to “act,” putting on a false face and doing the opposite of what they desire.

That’s the mistake for Anna, played by Wright’s collaborator on “Pride &Prejudice” and “Atonement,” Keira Knightley. She’s got the ideal marriage to the well-respected Karenin (Jude Law in a superbly discreet performance), but she can’t help lusting after handsome Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

Thus are wheels set in motion that can only lead to doom. Tolstoy’s story is so powerful it still has force, although the film feels so overdetermined it doesn’t seem to breathe very much.

The theatrical concept, which is certainly eye-filling, is designed to distance us from the passions in the story. I’m not sure that’s the best approach for Tolstoy, who draws you into his world by employing the tools of soap opera, and then destroys you with a well-observed detail of human behavior.

The most engaging character (and performance) is Anna’s brother Oblonsky, played by Matthew Macfadyen as an irrepressible rogue. The movie doesn’t spend a lot of time with the tortured Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who is lovesick because the beautiful Kitty (Alicia Vikander) lost her heart to Vronsky.

But then the movie doesn’t spend a lot of time on anything. At first I found its swiftness engaging, and the idea of connecting scenes and characters as though they are all moving on a single stage was clever to watch.

But you get the point pretty early on. And the heat between proper Anna and the perfectly mustachioed Vronsky (the star of “Nowhere Boy” certainly looks the part) doesn’t flicker into flame.

In other words, this is “Anna Karenina” as designed by the cerebral, serious Karenin, presenting these characters as though they were objects for study. I’d like to see the movie through Anna’s more passionate eyes.

“Anna Karenina” (2½ stars)

This adaptation of the oft-filmed Tolstoy novel has Keira Knightley as the wayward Russian wife whose affair with the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) ruins her place in society. Director Joe Wright stages the story with a great deal of theatrical artifice, so we keep our distance from the tale instead of feeling it deeply — which doesn’t seem like the right approach for Tolstoy. Jude Law co-stars.

Rated: R for subject matter, violence.

Showing: Pacific Place.

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