One man can make a difference and British film-maker Joe Wright does behind the lens of Anna Karenina.
In an act of hubris or just shameless showboating, he upends this emotionally cold adaptation of Tolstoy with grand, eye-catching flourishes.
Aping the stylistic vision though none of the campness nor heartbreak of Baz Luhrmann, Wright sets the adultery and deception on a theatre stage where the snow-laden locales of 1874 Imperial Russia are dropped into shot or wheeled on by cast members as moveable sets.
There’s no obvious method behind this production design madness: Anna Karenina isn’t an inherently theatrical work and the confines of an auditorium render pivotal scenes nonsensical.
One character inexplicably lives in the rafters of the building with his mistress; a horse race thunders out of impossibly long wings and across the sawdusted stage; and a climactic transgression at a train station is reduced to smoke and buffers.
All of the technical virtuosity is choreographed with split-second precision that verges on breathtaking.
Costumes and art direction are ravishing, and Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography shimmers with rich colour.
However, such fastidiousness snuffs out any faint flickers of emotion and disjoints the narrative, repeatedly drawing attention to the ambitions of the man in the director’s chair.
Beautiful yet bored socialite Anna (Keira Knightley) travels from St Petersburg to Moscow to provide emotional support to her sister-in-law Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), who has just discovered an affair between her husband Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) and the family governess.
En route, Anna meets Countess Vronskaya (Olivia Williams) and her son, dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who is wooing Dolly’s 18-year-old sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander).
At the latter’s debutante ball, Anna shamelessly dances with Count Vronsky, sowing the seeds of her downfall.
The wife returns to Moscow to her politically influential husband, Alexei (Jude Law), but Count Vronsky follows, determined that Anna should run away with him, despite the shame they would both bear for such a betrayal.
Anna Karenina is a big, expensive bauble: pristine, polished and admirable, but structurally brittle and completely hollow.
Knightley pouts with intent as she pursues Taylor-Johnson’s man in uniform with lust-fuelled fury.
Their solitary sex scene is shot like a perfume advertisement - snappily edited glimpses of flesh on flesh, writhing in orgiastic ecstasy.
Alas, on-screen sexual chemistry is frozen by blasts of ill Arctic winds.
Law is more restrained, successfully internalising his character’s emotions, but supporting performances are largely submerged beneath the frou-frou.
From the lustrous opening frames, with an orchestra striking up as the curtain rises on Wright’s ornate vision, it’s evident that this is his most concerted effort to woo Oscar voters and make amends for the snub for his 2007 adaptation of Atonement.
If nominations are earned based on impeccable style over substance, he’s a shoo-in.
By Damon Smith
:: SWEARING :: SEX :: VIOLENCE :: RATING: 5.5/10
Released: September 7(UK & Ireland), 130 mins