PREDICTION: Joe Wright's Anna Karenina is going to be the Speed Racer of literary adaptations—defended by nerds, derided by other nerds, and baffling to the public at large. It's an audacious interpretation of Leo Tolstoy that's overstuffed and overflowing with style. I can't be sure that it's a good movie—but I was so overwhelmed by its boldness that I can't deny I kind of loved it.
Keira Knightley plays Anna, a Russian princess who throws away her marriage to a pious councilman (Jude Law) to chase after a handsome young soldier (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Anna's a tragic tale of a woman of desire trapped on the wrong side of morality and history. She is only one of a large cast of characters, however: There are subplots involving her scoundrel brother and his put-upon wife (Matthew Macfadyen and Kelly Macdonald), as well as Anna's younger rival and the farmer who would be the girl's suitor (Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson). Most directors would jettison at least some of these side stories, but Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard are determined to get as much of Tolstoy's 800-page novel in as they can. They turn the story into an elaborate stage production—its characters move from set to set, jumping from the stage to the orchestra pit, all of it timed and executed like a choreographed musical. It's a mesmerizing conceit, somewhere between Lars von Trier's Dogville and Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge.
Anna Karenina is a breathless two hours. Whereas Wright's Oscar-winning Atonement was pretentious and slow, this is more like his cool action picture Hanna: pretentious, weird, and relentless. Even if you know the book, it's going to take all your attention to keep everyone and everything straight. It might be genius, or it could be madness. Nerds, choose your weapons!