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‘Anna Karenina’: An Affair Takes Center Stage

In a jewel box of a theater, the curtain goes up, the music swells and the camera itself swoons as the players take their places in Anna Karenina, Joe Wright’s ingenious, intoxicating adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel, in which the author’s dense tale of love, adultery, politics and aristocratic manners has been brilliantly re-imagined as light opera.

Very rarely in this exquisite production does the action move outside the immediate environs of the theater that serves as both backdrop and metaphor. The result is a sprawling canvas miniaturized, but not diminished: During that enchanting opening sequence, Wright’s balletic camera comes to rest upon a child’s toy train, knowing full well, as the audience does, that in this story trains are anything but toys.

As he did in his similarly vibrant literary adaptations Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, Wright has called upon Keira Knightley to channel the story’s complicated heroine, in this case a well-situated wife and mother whose cosseted life in 19th-century St. Petersburg is upended when she meets the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, whose mousy mustache and blond dye job admittedly take some getting used to here).

As fetching as Knightley is in the role of an aging belle of the ball who finds herself succumbing to erotic obsession, the genius of Anna Karenina is Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s decision to give equal pride of place to Tolstoy’s ancillary couples, whose moral, spiritual and political struggles have received unfairly short shrift in other film versions. So in addition to taking their vicarious part in the triangle defined by Anna, Vronsky and Anna’s husband Karenin (movingly portrayed by Jude Law), viewers receive the great gift of meeting the idealistic young couple Levin and Kitty (Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander), as well as the long-suffering Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) and her philandering husband, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen).

Presenting Stoppard’s glittering dialogue and judicious compression against an ever-changing backdrop that transforms the set into an office, cafe, palace and horse track in the blink of an eye, Wright stages Anna Karenina with equal parts precision, playfulness and passion as lively tableau vivant gradually gives way to tragic waltz. (Particularly transporting are a clever sequence set in Oblonsky’s office, an excruciating horse-race and an unspoken conversation between Levin and Kitty that Wright stages with sweetness.)

While Wright’s self-conscious theatricality and dollhouse aesthetic conjure comparisons to Baz Luhrmann and Wes Anderson, he outstrips both those filmmakers in moral seriousness and maturity. Even when exhibiting a fierce devotion to beauty and detail (like the veil Anna wears late in the film, a woman caught in a web of her own making), his work is never merely fetishistic or twee.

Rather, with the help of Stoppard’s shrewd judgment, he’s homed in on the most essential romantic and philosophical messages of Anna Karenina — its clear-eyed appraisal of the artifice and its abiding humanism and belief in moral agency — and brought them to nervy, thrilling life and renewed meaning.

Like the masterpiece that inspired it, Anna Karenina poses some of life’s toughest questions — about how to be good, how to be bad and the costs of both — but with nuance and sensuousness that make even its most profound truths levitate on flights of soaring imagination and pure poetry.

Wright’s Anna Karenina sings, dances and finally soars, even as its legendary heroine plunges to her most self-destructive depths.

R. Contains some sexuality and violence. 130 minutes.