All the world’s a stage, some bloke once wrote. And the men and women in Joe Wright’s stylised take on Leo Tolstoy’s 19th-Century tome are merely players thanks to the Hanna director’s decision to base its melodramatic action within the confines of a theatre.
Given the characters’ obsession with appearance, role-playing and social rank, there is sufficient logic to this approach to make it more than ostentatious affectation. But it still results in a ponderously artificial, self-regarding work that often feels like Moulin Rouge! without the karaoke.
OK, so an enormous amount of thought has gone into transforming Sarah Greenwood’s decaying playhouse set into a railway station, an ice rink and various other locations.
The main consequence, alas, is to pull the attention away from where it should be: on doomed heroine Anna (Keira Knightley), a government official’s wife whose pretty head is turned by a dashing cavalry officer (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
The impact of this scandalous liaison on Anna, her dull stiff of a husband (Jude Law) and Moscow society at large should convey a real tragic heft.
Yet rather than involve us in the story Wright’s grandiose concept keeps it at arm’s length, forever highlighting the smoke, mirrors and meticulous stage management that have been pressed into service to make his big idea a reality.
Every now and then, the walls separate to show a world beyond that Domhnall Gleeson’s lovelorn landowner Levin retreats to after his marriage proposal is rejected by the flighty Kitty (Alicia Vikander).
But no sooner have we adapted to this more conventional treatment, than Wright reverts to his experimental one, an aggravating switcheroo that’s not so much showmanship as simple showing off.
It doesn’t help that Knightley’s performance plays like a reprise of her Duchess turn - albeit a less involving one - or that the peach-fuzzed Taylor-Johnson is as credible a beau as his beloved steed Frou-Frou.
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Pimped, primped and dressed to the nines, Joe Wright’s Tols-toy story looks the business. Like a disappointing Christmas present, though, the pleasure quickly evaporates once you remove the shiny paper.