The biggest hurdle facing any film adaptation of one of the big 19th-century romantic novels today is a tricky one: how can you make the jaded and desensitized contemporary audience give a damn? Too many filmmakers fail completely to evoke any sort of connection to these stories of a lost world where moral values were a lot different and the importance of adhering to the rules of society much stricter than today. Can director Joe Wright, who managed to avoid that common pitfall with 2005′s Pride and Prejudice, do it again?

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Instead of updating or transporting Leo Tolstoy‘s sprawling and old-fashioned story to a contemporary setting, as some others have tried with other romances recently, Wright, whose last film is the audio-visual treat that is Hanna, has decided that the way to wow the audiences is through the visual aspect. And in that effort, he has created a truly unique spectacle.

Keira Knightley looking in a ballroom mirror in Anna Karenina

The majority of the film is shot in an old theater, transforming the entire building into whatever he fancies. The stage backdrops are switched out from a garden to an office, filled with impeccably choreographed secretaries, which then make way for a lush restaurant with a simple tracking shot, before the floor is emptied altogether to create a grand ballroom. And nothing seems to hard to create, as it provides the setting for an entire horserace, an icy train station (trains and all) and a windy field of outgrown grass, just to name a few examples.

In fact, the film is absolutely gorgeous to look at throughout, where the costumes’ theatricality is flaunted rather than suppressed, each nook and cranny is effortlessly transformed to create a feeling for an entire city, and even the few outdoor shots are richly stylized and beautiful.

The story, however.

Anna Karenina is a tricky story to tell, as we covered before, when the trailer was originally released. Wright has recruited the help of Tom Stoppard, one of the most respected playwrights in the world, to adapt the expansive novel into a tight 130 minutes. Stoppard is successful in that he does manage to create a mostly cohesive narrative, but unfortunately not much else.

Keira Knightley wearing a coat and furry hat in Anna Karenina

Keira Knightley‘s Anna is supposed to be a conflicted woman, trapped in a pre-feminist world, where she is shunned by society at large for falling for a charming Count Vronsky instead of her apathetic husband, aristocrat Alexei. Instead, her entire predicament is undermined from the start, partly by the lush visuals themselves, but more worryingly by a complete failure to connect with her character. The problem she faces is to either be the filthy rich wife of an aristocrat or the slightly less filthy rich wife of a count. So some people look at her the wrong way in the theater? So she has to go to the second-best tailor in the city for dresses? Big whoop. It’s decently acted, especially by the young Aaron Taylor-Johnson, but it’s far from enough to prevent you from getting mighty bored about 80 minutes in.

Anna’s First World Problems fail so spectacularly to resonate that the far less emphasized subplot involving the unmistakably true love story between Alicia Vikander‘s Kitty and Domhnall Gleeson‘s country-dwelling Levin is far more worthy of attention and empathy. Linking the two stories is Matthew Macfadyen as Oblonsky, who is wonderfully theatrical in his performance and in fact the only actor who never once gets overpowered by the visuals. While Anna’s story fades, theirs becomes the true emotional center of the entire film. And that’s never a good sign for such a big story.

Dario Marianelli’s music is not spectacular but fittingly old-fashioned, while Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is first-class, both in the brilliantly maneuvered theater setting and the sweeping countryside scenes.

Final Verdict: Anna Karenina is a difficult novel to adapt into mere 130 minutes of cinema, and despite a unique and award-worthy visual spectacle, director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard fail to make the story of Anna relevant, resulting in a disappointingly dull journey, albeit through fabulous sets.

Have you seen Anna Karenina? What’s your verdict? Tell us in the comments.

Follow @Filmophilia on Twitter, and me, @ErlingurEinars

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