Anna Karenina

Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is an ambitious cavalry officer whose love for a married woman (Keira Knightley) derails his career in Joe Wright’s version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

— Anna Karenina

88 Cast: Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jude Law, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Kelly Macdonald, Emily Watson Director: Joe Wright Rating: R, for some sexuality and violence Running time: 130 minutes

“Sumptuous” is the word for Joe Wright’s self-consciously stylish and highly entertaining movie of Count Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina — the film is at least half fashion show, an opportunity to feast on visuals.

And that in itself might present a problem for those of us charged with thinking about the movies, for while any film version of Anna Karenina must necessarily be reductive, should Tolstoy’s tragic masterpiece of realistic fiction be rendered as light entertainment?

I don’t really have an answer for that, though I will say that Wright’s treatment initially struck me as ingenious. He sets the movie — or at least most of it — in an exquisite little theater, a gesture that put me in mind of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge for sure, but also of Louis Malle’s wonderful Chekhov adaptation from 1994, Vanya on 42nd Street.

And while Wright’s film skews far more to Luhrmann in its embrace of theatrical artificiality, it also — in its quieter and more serious moments, especially in a couple of scenes between Jude Law (who’s wonderfully cast against type as the cuckolded husband of the title character) and Keira Knightley (who plays Anna) — occasionally approaches the complicated psychological verisimilitude implicit in great stage acting. If you can get past the audacious set design and Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s creepy, fey Count Vronsky (who no worthy woman could ever take seriously), then you might find yourself moved by this version of the old story of love, adultery, politics and hypocrisy among the Russian aristocracy in the 19th century, which has been filmed at least a dozen times (and ripped off incessantly).

Anna is, of course, the upright socialite married to Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, and the protagonist with whom we are meant to identify. She is beautiful, intelligent and sensitive — and she deserves so much more than her dull husband, a government official based in St. Petersburg.

In the book, Karenin is 20 years older than Anna (Law is 12 years older than Knightley), a formal and duty-bound man who has acquired the patina of culture despite an apparent lack of soul. Karenin is quite possibly the Ur Baxter — the nice guy who never doesn’t get the girl. He’s like Charles Bovary: There’s nothing really wrong with him other than he’s a little dull.

Anna is a devoted wife until she encounters the dashing cavalry officer Vronsky, who jilts Anna’s young friend Kitty Shcherbatskya (Alicia Vikander) after bumping into Anna at the portentous train station.

Yet while we can admire Wright’s balletic camera movements and Peter Greenaway-style tableaux (even as our superegos tsktsk at the soufflelike lightness of his confection), the secret weapon of this surprisingly potent movie is the script by Tom Stoppard, which cannily drops in on Tolstoy’s ancillary characters, such as the pensive rube Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Anna’s longsuffering sister-in-law Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), who is compelled to forgive her philandering husband, Oblonsky (a fattened and sleek Matthew Macfadyen).

Stoppard has necessarily compressed Tolstoy’s story and seeded his script with glittering dialogue, while Wright keeps the thing moving, with a set that seems to be more like a constantly evolving dream than any actual space.

This isn’t a perfect Anna Karenina — like all great novels, Tolstoy’s novel is, in a sense, an unfilmable experience — but it is a judicious and original stab at channeling the essence of the novel into a different form. It’s worth remembering that Tolstoy lived to see the movies, and that he even wrote an essay about them in which he imagined they might mean the end of literature.

“It is a direct attack on the old methods of literary art,” the old count wrote. “We shall have to adapt ourselves to the shadowy screen and to the cold machine. A new form of writing will be necessary. I have thought of that and I can feel what is coming.”

But Tolstoy was not distressed. Instead, he wrote, “I rather like it. This swift change of scene, this blending of emotion and experience — it is closer to life. In life, too, changes and transitions flash by before our eyes, and emotions of the soul are like a hurricane. The cinema has divined the mystery of motion. And that is greatness.”

Maybe Wright and Stoppard have not given us a great Anna Karenina, maybe this movie is too derivative and flashy for that, but they have connected the essential romantic and philosophical poles of Tolstoy’s book: The heart wants what it wants, and will destroy itself to have it.

MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 11/30/2012