It could have weighed a ton. That can happen when you film an 1877 classic by Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. But thanks to director Joe Wright, Anna Karenina lifts off into the wild blue of his imagination. The surging romantic tragedy of a woman who dies for love is still there in Tom Stoppard’s screenplay. Anna (Keira Knightley) leaves her dull husband, Karenin (Jude Law, so good he makes virtue worth investigating), and their beloved son to experience unbridled passion with studly Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor- Johnson, the definition of dashing). The story has been filmed many times, but never with this kind of erotic charge. Knightley is glorious, her eyes blazing with a carnal yearning that can turn vindictive at any perceived slight.
Rather than genuflecting to Tolstoy, Wright (Atonement, Hanna) shakes things up by setting his film in a 19th-century theater to emphasize Anna’s artificial life in Russian society, moving outside when the characters connect to the real outdoors enjoyed by the country farmer Levin (Domhnall Gleeson). Don’t shriek at the sacrilege. My advice is to let Wright’s Anna Karenina work its strange and marvelous spell.