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Anna Karenina

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'Anna Karenina': Style crushes substance
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies

As parents and teachers and other such authority figures the world over have been apt to advise, there's nothing wrong with being different, but just being different for the sake of it can be kind of alienating, not to say obnoxious. The latest film adaptation of the literary classic "Anna Karenina," directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Tom Stoppard and starring Keira Knightley in the title role, is an extremely unfortunate object lesson in that observation about being different for its own sake.

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For reasons known only to themselves, the filmmakers initially present the story of Russian wife and mother Anna and her ill-starred affair with a dashing soldier named Vronsky as a kind of stage play. Anna's poor husband, Karenin, portrayed by Jude Law, showing off his full receding hairline to prove he's taking the role of an aging reformer seriously, is sometimes seen sitting in a comfy chair by the stage's footlights. The supporting character Levin, in a sense a Tolstoy stand-in in the book, negotiates narrow walkways through the theater's rafters to meet a character taking up space in an attic, and so on. The trains that take the characters from Petersburg to Moscow are, at least initially, miniature model trains. And so on. But now and again the movie will break out of its theater-bound setting and place ecstatic lovers Vronsky and Anna in a fresh green sea of grass, both of them dressed in near-gleaming white, like a scene out of "Elvira Madigan" art-directed by Jeff Koons.

Readers familiar with Tolstoy's book will immediately appreciate that there is nothing inherent in the material that justifies or even suggests such a hyper-stylized approach. As much as Anna's mad love for Vronsky represents a grievously ill-advised playing out of a passion that knows no reason, Tolstoy's treatment of it is hardly fanciful. That being the case, just because there's no rationale for a hyper-stylized treatment in the material one is adapting, there's no innate or actual prohibition against applying it, either. The thing is, if you do decide to apply it, you damn well better pull it off.

Wright does not. Scene after scene of pointless choreographed pantomime and tricksy stagecraft deliver absolutely nothing in terms of either aesthetic pleasure or emotional dividend. The whole thing seems tetchy, nervous, over-eager to impress and too often like Baz Luhrmann minus the perverse sense of fun and play. One scene, in which Anna traipses off to the theater despite being the scandal of Moscow and a tear-stained scene of social disapprobation ensues, works well enough that if you saw it in isolation you might think, "Well, that's an interesting approach." But coming as it does near the movie's finale, it's entirely too little too late and it doesn't even matter really: The movie's been throwing so much different stuff onto the material that odds alone guaranteed something would stick.

The cast members, who also include such stalwarts as Olivia Williams and Kelly Macdonald, soldier on through this overstuffed bazaar as best they can, although Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as Vronsky, comes on so callow that one is inclined to wonder whether he's just a member of One Direction who's passed himself off as the actor. As Knightley's Anna doesn't really get to register the lack she feels in her life before she meets Vronsky, the character tends to come off as perversely heedless as she throws her marriage and status away, but that's not the actress's fault. And it scarcely matters anyway. In the final analysis, the signal achievement of this version of "Anna Karenina" is that it manages to use a world literary classic as the platform for nothing less than the longest Chanel ad ever.

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Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.

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