Lavish art direction upstages love triangle in Anna Karenina

Keira Knightley’s performance trapped on set

While Lee delivers a scrupulously faithful adaptation of Life of Pi, director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard take joyous liberties with Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina. The filmmakers confine most of the 19th-century Russian love triangle to a playhouse, which stands in for lavishly adorned parlors, bureaucratic offices, train stations, and more. At one point a character climbs up into the rafters, which prove to be crowded with poor, shabbily dressed people, as if part of a slum.

With gorgeously designed, Oscar-worthy sets and costumes, Anna Karenina writes the lifestyle of the Russian aristocracy in miniature, as if the title character (Keira Knightley) lives trapped on stages and in dollhouses. The side effect of this commentary on high society, however, is to minimize the novel’s stormy emotions when the light comedy of the film’s first half gives way to domestic tragedy.

Anna feels increasingly trapped by her marriage to icy Karenin (Jude Law) and attracted to the dashing Count Vronsky (mustachioed Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Knightley still has an appealing feistiness, but she and Taylor-Johnson come across as play-acting kids, and their rebellious lovers seem motivated more by indulgent selfishness as opposed to grand passions.

Anna Karenina delivers a smaller but more compelling subplot involving awkward, earnest Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who abandons the liaisons of the nobility in favor of honest country living, with most of the scenes in nature taking place in the actual outdoors. Levin finds an amusing foil in Anna’s brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), a booming, bumbling libertine and welcome source of comic relief.

Tolstoy fans will appreciate Anna Karenina’s attempt to compress so much of the sprawling novel into a 130-minute film. At times, though, especially in the early scenes, the density of detail might bewilder some audiences. Stoppard’s ingenious literary riffs in Shakespeare in Love and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead benefited from more universal familiarity. Anna Karenina remains worth seeing, but you’ll be less invested in such questions as “How will Anna reconcile her divided emotions?” than “How will the filmmakers manage to cram a full-scale horse race into their indoor set?”