Updated Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 07:22 PM
You don't merely watch Joe Wright's sumptuous "Anna Karenina," but you waltz with it, run with it, whirl with it. The latest of many screen incarnations of Tolstoy's tale of forbidden love and unhappy families, this "Anna" is wildly theatrical; its swirling city scenes precisely choreographed and filmed as a stage presentation in a crumbling Russian theater. (The scenes taking place in the country have a natural simplicity, in stark contrast.)
Nearly everything about this film is over-the-top, and deliriously so: the diamond earrings of an unfaithful wife glitter like stars at midnight; the white dress worn by an innocent ingénue floats around her like an enveloping cloud; street scenes, taking place in the catwalks of the theater, involve elaborate posing, as if walking through a musical; a note, torn into pieces and thrown into the air by a bitter husband, becomes a swirl of snowflakes. Particularly in its first half, this film seems to never stop moving and you feel breathless and giddy watching it. It's hardly a realistic depiction of Imperial Russia in 1874, but it isn't meant to be — it's a mood, and a vision. Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard have found a gimmick, to be sure, but just try to look away; it's as if the entire movie is dancing, like those whirling Russian socialites so long ago.
Tolstoy's story remains at center stage, nonetheless, performed by a striking troupe. Keira Knightley (who wears Jacqueline Durran's exquisite costumes with airy ease) is a girlish Anna, surprised by her own emotions; a nearly unrecognizable Jude Law, quietly stealing the movie with his pained honesty, is her ramrod-straight husband. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, sporting a mustache that looks like it's forever passing judgment, is the foppish Vronsky, who draws Anna into an affair. Matthew Macfadyen is irresistibly funny as Anna's brother Oblonsky; Domhnall Gleeson, pinched and pining, is his friend from the country, Levin, desperately in love with Oblonsky's young sister-in-law, Kitty (lovely Alicia Vikander).
Dario Marianelli's score wraps them all in a melancholy waltz, as they spin — do I hear a train whistle? — to this tragedy's inevitable conclusion. This lavish, crowded treasure-box of a movie won't be to everyone's taste, but you'll find nothing like it on screen anywhere this year; try a turn with it, and see if you fall.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
'Anna Karenina,' with Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander. Directed by Joe Wright, from a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy. 130 minutes. Rated R for some sexuality and violence. Several theaters.
LAURIE SPARHAM / AP
The wife (Keira Knightley) of a government official (Jude Law) has eyes for someone else in "Anna Karenina."