**1/2 (out of four)
The last time director Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Hanna”) teamed with Keira Knightley on an adaptation of classic literature (“Pride and Prejudice”), she scored a Best Actress Oscar nod.
Not going to happen this time. In Wright’s take on Leo Tolstoy’s 19th century novel “Anna Karenina,” Knightley struggles to convey believably the title character’s tragic decisions and grandly emotional behavior. As she trades one Alexei for another, her throw-caution-to-the-wind lust for Count Alexei Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) fails to come across as all-consuming and irresistible—despite Anna’s disinterest in her older husband, Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), and his bald spot on top that’s not getting any smaller.
Written by Tom Stoppard (“Shakespeare in Love”), this not-very-Russian “Anna Karenina” features a distracting and confusing approach that turns what’s happening into theater (Vronsky’s horse accident involves him riding the horse off the stage). Stoppard gets little from Levin’s (Domhnall Gleeson) unrelenting feelings for Kitty (Alicia Vikander), who goofily calls her past behavior young and stupid just a few months later. The movie also could have paid more attention to political subtext and what Karenin has supposedly done for Russia while dropping some redundant interactions seemingly included to maximize the number of times characters are called “your excellency.”
Considering the cultural double standard of slut shaming and perennial issue of women fighting for equal footing in a man’s world, “Anna Karenina” of course maintains its punch as a tale of disproportionate responses to infidelity and temptation. Yet the feelings don’t shout as loud as the characters in a film that’s closer to Cary Fukunaga’s decent “Jane Eyre” than Andrea Arnold’s breathless adaptation of “Wuthering Heights,” opening Nov. 30.
Maybe it’s time to focus on coming up with new classics instead of constantly returning to the old ones?
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