To fully appreciate what Joe Wright has wrought with his adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic tale of adultery among the 19th century Russian aristocracy, audiences should prime themselves with Wright’s surreal battlefield interlude from Atonement. That film’s painterly portrait of the Dante-esque Inferno of war gets replaced here with an equally compelling conceit. Anna Karenina latches onto the idea of life played out on a constantly shifting Old World stage — jazzed up with a sensual restlessness and humor to equate 19th century society and the theater as realm both subject to rules of order that cannot be circumvented.
Russian society dictated that the natural order of family had little to do with love and women were not considered autonomous figures in charge of their own destiny. Free will and the freedom to act with impunity were granted only to men. So, when Anna (Keira Knightley) succumbs to her passion for Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) over the reasonable stability of her life with Karenin (a beautifully muted Jude Law), the combustible act overheats the production and causes it to sputter about two-thirds of the way through until the finish, but while in overdrive, Wright’s feverishly felt affair dances with such dazzling grace that it gave the impression that we and the very Earth itself were spinning in concert. (R) Grade: A-