'I'm getting out of this operetta," fumes Count Vronsky, which is funny because he's actually in one called "Anna Karenina." It begins with a curtain rising upon a stage that somehow contains all of Imperial Russia, with prop-toting peasants, trompe-l'oeil backdrops and very real countryside. By the time Vronsky utters his fourth-wall jostler, it's already clear that this multilayered movie is not your average Tolstoy adaptation.
Highly stylized and drenched in symbolism, "Anna Karenina" is a Gilbert and Sullivan riddle wrapped in a Baz Luhrmann mystery inside a Tom Stoppard enigma (the latter wrote the marvelous, heady screenplay). But it also works as a lush costume drama, with a radiant Keira Knightley in the title role of a respectable married woman doomed by her affair with the dashing Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, convincingly callow). The combination of artifice and melodrama may not please all tastes, but it's a welcome change from director Joe Wright, known for his by-the-book adaptations of "Atonement" and "Pride and Prejudice."
Much credit goes to the cast, expertly navigating this tricky territory. Matthew Macfadyen plays Anna's brother, Oblonsky, a lovable philanderer; Kelly Macdonald plays his humiliated wife, Dolly. Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander (both relative newcomers) are wonderful as Levin and Kitty, Tolstoy's exemplars of hard-won love. Most surprising, though, is Jude Law, transforming his aquiline features into the dull, bulbous face of Anna's husband, Karenin. He's the one actor who stands out by underplaying his role.
Ultimately, the heightened theatricality forces viewers to approach this familiar material as fable, farce and tragedy all at once. Then again, you could just enjoy "Anna Karenina" as a great-looking piece of Hollywood entertainment.
PLOT An adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's 19th century novel about an affair between a married socialite and a Russian officer
BOTTOM LINE This daringly stylized adaptation is filled with tricky symbolism but still satisfies the requirements of a lush-looking, well-acted period romance. Either way, it's great entertainment.