Passion triumphs in Karenina

The new film adaptation of Russian novelist’s Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is full of love, lust, jealousy and heartbreak.

There’s big tragedy, too, as the story’s principal female character, a beautiful young woman married to a stodgy Russian official who prides himself upon propriety and values his image above all else, follows her heart.

Keira Knightley stars as Anna, wife of Karenin, a man of means and status in Imperial Russia, circa 1874. They share a young son who longs for both of his parents’ affections but is far more likely to receive it from his demonstratively loving mother than his formal, chilly papa.

Anna’s fate is forecast as the film begins. Her husband, played by an aptly imperious but ultimately human Jude Law, stands rigidly in his uniform as he tells her that sinners, such as her philandering brother in Moscow, will always pay for their sins.

A good deed done by Knightley’s wide-eyed, fresh as a flower still on the stem Anna leads her to life-altering consequences. At the behest of her brother, she travels by train to Moscow to help him mend his strained relationship with his angry wife.

It’s on the train that Anna meets the worldly Countess Vronsky. Russian royalty, the countess is a woman who has sinned often, enjoyed sinning and gotten away with it.

Countess Vronsky has a handsome, young cavalry officer son. Aaron Taylor-Johnson co-stars as the cool Vronsky, a dashing figure who makes women in Moscow society swoon. He spots Anna at the train station while he’s there to meet his mother. Vronsky is instantly drawn to Anna. Taylor-Johnson his character’s attraction nearly to Anna mercenary.

Oscar winner Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) shaped the movie’s script from Tolstoy’s massive novel. There’s much forward momentum as events move quickly with inevitable, clockwork efficiency.

There’s also much artificiality in this adaptation, enough to take moviegoers out of the story and world the filmmakers strive to place them in.

Directed by Joe Wright, who previously directed Knightley in Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, Anna Karenina is a movie that transparently begins on a stage, in a theater.

The workings of the theater, including its changing sets, backstage and rigging, are displayed with flourishes of affectation. While a fresh and insightful retelling of a classic is always welcome, Anna Karenina’s periodic shifts from stage to more realistic settings are distracting.

There’s more artificiality in the movie’s stylized, theatrical, self-conscious melodrama and musical-comedy mannerisms. For instance, a roomful of clerks under the supervision of Anna’s bureaucrat brother, Oblonsky, stamps paperwork in rhythmic unison.

“Paperwork is the soul of Russia,” Oblonsky proclaims. “Farming is only the stomach.”

Broadly played by Matthew Macfadyen, Oblonsky is a husband who regrets his infidelity. He’s the story’s buffoonish comic relief.

There’s far more genuineness in Oblonsky’s best friend, Levin. Domhnall Gleeson, playing Levin, and Alicia Vikander, in the role of Kitty, co-star as the lovers whose story parallels Anna and Vronsky’s more dramatic tale.

Despite whatever damage the filmmakers’ decision to include a theater’s stagecraft into their movie, the film’s cast, especially Knightley, Taylor-Johnson and Gleeson, carry on with deep, artifice-banishing passion. Even Law’s Karenin lets his guard down, revealing his own immense pain. “Tell me what I did to deserve this?” he demands of his wife.

Away from its stagy ensemble scenes, the movie’s simpler, intimate moments, including one-on-one scenes featuring Anna and her husband, and Anna and her sister-in-law, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), have the most power. The actors’ passion overrules the filmmakers’ artifice.