An elephant as white as the Siberian tundra, Joe Wright's lavish new filming of Anna Karenina would be the movie of the year if cleverness and visual legerdemain trumped all. Whisking aside the curtains, Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard frame the Tolstoy source material with a theatrical flourish. As if to underscore the artifice and withering scrutiny of social life among the 19th-century Russian nobility, the actors take their positions on a literal stage that yields to real locations and exteriors as the action moves (by toy train) from oppressive city to restorative country.
On paper, that's an inspired idea, and Wright's pictorial effects are initially dazzling: actors stepping through fake flats onto real steppes; showily choreographed, whirling long takes, apparently meant to settle bets with Max Ophüls and Brian De Palma. Instead of intensifying the characters' emotions, however, the sleeve-tugging stylization renders them abstract and distant. The effect is of trying to become engrossed in a play while a hammy magician does tricks on the apron. That leaves a viewer free to wonder why Keira Knightley's Anna seems such a self-centered ditz or why she'd doom herself for the discreet charm of Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Count Vronsky, pallid as a cave-dwelling fish.
Wright has an extravagant talent, but here, as in the flashiest, least convincing parts of Atonement, he's a style in search of a movie. The visual ornamentation is draped over the story like fondant — as it registers, the method could apply to any work of literature drawn from a hat, with similar justification (and results). The artfully upholstered movie never risks camp or kitsch, like one of Baz Luhrmann's Fabergé-egg spectaculars. The style maintains its cocked-eyebrow remove throughout. But that's just another way of saying it lacks the one element required for liftoff: passionate abandon.