Joe Wright’s polished adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (05) readied him for the convergence of the intimate and the spectacular in Atonement (07), his mobile camerawork prompting comparisons, visually if not thematically, to Max Ophuls. What’s more, Keira Knightley was pleasingly irate in both films, so all augured well for the director and the star’s attempt on Tolstoy’s 800-page masterwork.
However, the fateful decision was made by Wright (not Tom Stoppard, whose script was unaffected) to set the Moscow and St. Petersburg scenes in a decrepit theater— a metaphor, presumably, for an era and a class that, like Anna’s adulterous passion for her pretty young Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is doomed. These episodes, unfortunately abetted by several overly rhetorical performances, pale in comparison with the naturalistic rural sequences featuring the non-transgressive love of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and his bride, Kitty (Alicia Vikander), whose gentle altruism makes Anna seem like a raging sexual narcissist.
The other problem is the star. If Knightley’s propensity for face-pulling suited her rendering of sexual hysteria in A Dangerous Method, here it reveals a lack of sophistication. Jude Law shows much greater depth as Karenin and is not unsympathetic as a cuckold doing what he can to salvage his pride in an unforgiving society. The look is gorgeous, of course, but seldom has so much aestheticization served so much heartlessness.