If you type "Anna Karenina" into the IMDb, you'll be presented with more than two dozen feature films, TV-movies, miniseries and shorts bearing that title, so perhaps a little fresh thinking is required to justify yet another screen adaptation. The latest screen version, directed by Joe Wright and scripted by Tom Stoppard, is certainly unusual and distinctive, with the filmmakers bringing a sense of theatrical artifice to Tolstoy's novel. But while we may be inclined to applaud such out-of-the-box thinking, it's hard to escape the notion that it is a complete misfire. There's nothing wrong with the intention – we've all seen enough conventional and lifeless literary adaptations to last a lifetime – and there's not much wrong with the slick execution either, but in practice it simply proves to be a completely wrongheaded approach to this material.
Anna Karenina largely unfolds inside a theatre, with the world of 19th century St. Petersburg being recreated onstage, backstage and in the surrounding balconies. Transitions involve characters simply wandering from one scene to the next – often as a backdrop is pulled away and extras change clothes behind them – and occasionally the players will all freeze as a spotlight draws our focus towards particular individuals, lost in their own private drama. Wright even uses a model train set instead of opting for expensive external or CGI-assisted shots; a charming touch that exemplifies the old-fashioned, creative, collaborative spirit infusing the whole production. Whether these decisions were driven by the director's particular vision or by the limited financial means at the filmmakers' disposal, they certainly give us an Anna Karenina that stands alone.
Whether it actually stands up under scrutiny is another matter entirely. There's nothing in Tolstoy's novel that suggests such an approach; after all, the book's realism in depicting Russian city and farming life, and in the richness of its character studies, is one of its defining features. Perhaps the idea being explored here is that St Petersburg is a stage with all of its inhabitants playing clearly defined roles, with their behaviour being constantly scrutinised by a whispering audience. This certainly appears to be the case in the way Wright handles the title character (Keira Knightly), who escapes her marriage to the dour Karenin (Jude Law) for an affair with the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). It may also explain why the director opts for exterior shots when telling the story of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who toils the land and ponders his own romantic future with Kitty (Alicia Vikander) far from the chattering classes and social constraints of the city.
For about an hour, the sheer chutzpah of Wright's style commands the attention. At its best, Anna Karenina recalls Ophüls with its elegant camerawork and much-missed British mavericks like Powell & Pressburger or Ken Russell in its imaginative staging. But Wright is a shallow orchestrator of spectacle, and when the charm of his unconventional approach wears off, and when inspiration starts to run dry, the film has no dramatic weight to back it up. While most of the key incidents in the book are covered by Stoppard's screenplay, they are rendered in the glibbest terms. Anna's dissatisfaction with married life is given no context and her dalliance with Vronksy – which should feel like a passionate love worth throwing it all away for – feels rushed and forced. In its second half, Anna Karenina falls into a dull and repetitive rhythm with the theatrical setting only being fitfully utilised, and it rather plods towards a climax clumsily foreshadowed by repeated close-ups on the onrushing Train Wheels of Death.
Nobody wants to see another genteel period drama so trapped by the weight of prestige and propriety that it can barely breathe, but filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese (The Age of Innocence), Iain Softley (The Wings of the Dove) and Cary Fukunaga (Jane Eyre) have shown how such adaptations can be modernised and revitalised in subtle, potent ways. Wright's Anna Karenina has numerous obvious problems, from the casting of Knightly, overawed by a role that demands too much of her, to the ludicrously limp Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a romantic lead; but its biggest problem is that beneath its enterprising aesthetic approach, the film remains cold to the touch. Only the relationship that develops on the fringes of the central narrative, between the well-cast and appealingly performed Levin and Kitty, comes close to stirring some sense of feeling. This film reduces Tolstoy's great novel to a superficial and awkward puppet show, but I can't bring myself to damn it too harshly, not when its failings are the direct result of its ambition and desire to be different. Anna Karenina may be a failure, but at least this unhappy movie is unhappy in its own way.