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Staged romance: Anna Karenina



Anna Karenina (R)

Oh Anna, you could have done better.

The main problem plaguing Joe Wright's Anna Karenina is the man with whom the title character (Keira Knightley, of course), has an affair. Played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Count Vronsky is too young, too charmless and too highlighted to inspire the kind of passion that would make a married aristocrat rip off her bodice. And it wouldn't hurt if his mustache matched his hair.

Not that Anna's husband, Karenin (Jude Law), is a lothario, either. Balding and stoic, even after he's told of the affair, Karenin is a bucket of cold, sensible water that extinguishes any joy that may reveal itself in his presence. You want to sympathize with him, but you can't quite.

If you can get past the leads' lack of chemistry, however, Anna Karenina is rather sexy, a tale of forbidden love in 19th-century Russia. (Never mind that everyone has British accents.) There are other romances (or non-romances) going on in Leo Tolstoy's novel, adapted by playwright Tom Stoppard, from puppy love to more adultery, with a thematic emphasis on what love is and why people marry.

As was proper back in ye olden days, flirtation was communicated mainly through stolen glances or choreographed dance. The film has a wonderful symmetry, particularly in the ballroom scenes, that lends it a theatrical flair. Often, too, Wright has extraneous characters freeze while the main ones move about freely, and it's inexplicably lovely. But when the crinolines do come off, things get rather steamy, regardless if you sensed an initial attraction between the lovers or not.

And speaking of the theater, Wright oddly chose to set the action in one. But, seemingly, not all of the action, and the goings-on that do obviously occur in a playhouse therefore feel random and nonsensical.

OK, so all the world's a stage, etc., etc., and I suppose the metaphor is what the director is going for here. But really, who cares if the train the characters are on — for the most part shot traditionally, with no indication it's anything other than the real thing — ends up chugging to a stop in the middle of an aisle? Or if people are gossiping on a back stage? Especially when said backstage suddenly opens up, and what do you know, there's the actual outdoors, where the story continues. The gimmick may be novel, but it's ultimately distracting.

This is the third time Wright and Knightley have worked together (Pride & Prejudice and Atonement being the others), so the star seems comfortable in her period-piece corsets and high English. Still, no matter how many times she dons the hoop skirts, all you're likely to think is: Well, there's Keira Knightley again. There's nothing exactly wrong with her performance here, but it's not exactly remarkable, either. Her Anna's bosom heaves, she declares love, she wrangles with guilt, all in a paint-by-numbers way.

Wright's muse may inspire him, but by now his go-to gal may leave you wishing that next time he, like Anna, try someone new.

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