In late-19th-century Russian high-society, the aristocrat Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) enters into a life-changing affair with the affluent Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

Passion overwhelmed by heavily stylised theatrics.

'All the world's a stage" begins a monologue in William Shakespeare's As You Like It, an aphorism that’s taken to extreme lengths by director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard in Anna Karenina, their iteration of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel.

the artifice creates an invisible wall between the cast and the viewer

In his endeavour to give a fresh interpretation of the tale of lust, betrayal, jealousy and death in imperial Russia, Wright deploys the set of an ageing theatre – the stage, the stairs, back passages, scaffolding and the floor with all seats removed – as the primary setting for the tragedy.

No doubt this bold, ambitious conceit was an attempt to distance his rendering from the dozen or so predecessors, most famously the 1927 silent film that starred Greta Garbo and John Gilbert and outraged Tolstoy devotees with its happy ending for US audiences; a 1935 version that again starred Garbo; and the 1948 reworking that paired Vivien Leigh with Ralph Richardson.

However, this ploy misfires badly as the artifice creates an invisible wall between the cast and the viewer, frequently working against the sense of realism and blunting the emotional intensity. In terms of theatrical style, think Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! without the songs and high camp tone.

In her third collaboration with Wright following Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, Keira Knightley struggles with the demands of the title role. Her Anna is such a selfish, flighty and headstrong woman it is difficult to feel sympathy as her life of privilege unravels.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson as her lover Count Vronsky gives a vapid, shallow performance and there is little heat between them. He may be handsome, albeit with a caterpillar moustache that looks false, but he lacks charm and the character’s powers of seduction are hidden behind a foppish air. The couple’s initial, illicit love scene is coyly filmed, conveying little sense of the magnetic physical attraction that ostensibly binds them.

Anna was married at 18 to Karenin (Jude Law), a high-ranking government official in St. Petersburg, and bore him a son. Years later, in 1874, the marriage has gone stale, Law portraying the bearded, bespectacled, balding Karenin as stiff, strait-laced and remote, bordering on the cold. So little wonder Anna is almost instantly smitten when she first sights the dashing cavalry officer Vronsky as she gets off a train in Moscow. Anna is on a mission to patch up the faltering marriage between her philandering brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen, who’s marvellous, bubbling with energy and humour) and the distraught Dolly (Kelly Macdonald).

There is the small inconvenience of Dolly's beauteous younger sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander) being infatuated with Vronsky, but that’s no impediment to the rapacious Anna. Karenin cautions his wife against consorting with Vronsky, which she blithely ignores, and a giddily-shot ballroom pas de deux between Anna and Vronsky is the catalyst for events that will seal her fate.

A far less intriguing subplot revolves around Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a young, earnest, idealistic landowner who is said to embody Tolstoy’s beliefs in God, social justice and the nature of true love. Levin is in love with Kitty, feelings that are not reciprocated for some time.

To be fair, the staging is inventive: the theatre is transformed into an ice rink, a horse track (the nags racing across the stage is a brilliant piece of stagecraft) and a ballroom, and at one stage the roof slides open to reveal fireworks lighting the night sky. A toy train morphs into a real train, the sound of a flapping fan transforms into the thundering of horse hooves.

Yet such devices as placing the characters in freeze-frame and having Oblonsky being dressed by underlings as he strides through a room serve to heighten the sense of watching actors performing in an extravagantly staged play, not an intense drama with flesh-and-blood characters.

Sarah Greenwood’s production design, Katie Spencer’s set design, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s choreography and Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are immaculate. It’s a shame that craftsmanship wasn’t put to more compelling and convincing effect by the director.

The heavy-handed score by Dario Marianelli is counterproductive, adding to an overwrought production that rarely rings true.

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2 hours 10 min
In Cinemas 07 February 2013,