'Karenina' pretty, lacks substance

Keira Knightley in "Anna Karenina."

Keira Knightley in "Anna Karenina."

Liz Braun, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:11 PM ET

An ambitious new film version of Anna Karenina presents Tolstoy's creation as a passionate love story with great costumes.

The story opens in the theatre, as if to suggest you'll be seeing a filmed version of a theatrical production, but that's not exactly what's going on here. This Anna Karenina is highly stylized and stagey, often using formal and artificial sets if high society is involved; most rural scenes are filmed in a way that's open and natural. Sometimes all that works wonderfully and sometimes it just takes you out of the movie, but it's never less than visually arresting.

Keira Knightley is Anna, and Jude Law is Alexei Karenin, her older husband. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays Anna's lover, Count Vronsky. The tragic affair between Anna and Vronsky runs in contrast to the enduring love between secondary characters Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander), who arrive slowly at their relationship.

You can be sure class struggle is brewing late in the 19th century in Imperial Russia -- Levin, who just wants to work in the fields with the peasants, is more or less the story's moral compass. Between his statement that "Romantic love will be the last delusion of the old order," and a worker's terrible death under a train, everything that's mad, bad and terrible to know about Anna and Vronsky is spelled out in advance. What to make of it all is the issue.

Tom Stoppard's screenplay and Keira Knightley's performance give us an Anna who is heartbreaking but not entirely sympathetic.

Likewise, Aaron Taylor-Johnson -- all white horse and sumptuous uniform -- is glorious to look at, but seemingly presented only from Anna's point of view, so he is never quite three-dimensional. It's tough to care about the characters.

There are a couple of what you might call terrific production numbers within the movie (one at a ball involving the complicated dance known as passion and one involving a horse race), but Anna Karenina is otherwise a beautiful muddle that passes pleasantly and vanishes instantly.

Experiencing the film is a lot like flipping through a particularly good September issue of Vogue magazine -- engaging enough while you're looking at it, but a bit too 'inside' and with nothing to dwell upon afterward. Still, if this Anna Karenina inspires anyone to read the novel, that's all to the good.


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