Who would dare have the temerity to take on Leo Tolstoy’s timeless novel? (Ignore the fact that it’s been filmed many times before, starring the likes of Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh — we mean, who now would dare have the temerity?) But while one breathes a sigh of relief upon finding out that no less a wordsmith than playwright Tom Stoppard has handled the script for this adaptation, one’s heart sinks upon learning that director Joe Wright (Atonement) has decided to set his new movie in a dilapidated theater. By the time one reads that the leads are Keira Knightley and Jude Law – who on their off days can be among the more wooden actors in modern cinema – one could be too exhausted to carry on.
Thankfully, that’s where the critics come in to deliver their verdicts on the classic story of Anna questioning her happiness and marriage – they’re interlinked, you know! – as Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) enters her life and gives Law’s Judge Alexei Karenin a run for his money. For TIME’s Richard Corliss, it’s all about the eponymous heroine: “Knightley embodies Anna as a girlish woman who has never felt erotic love; once smitten, she is raised to heavenly ecstasy before tumbling into the abyss of shame … She helps make Anna Karenina an operatic romance worth singing about.” The Guardian is pretty much convinced, concluding that “The Wright/Stoppard Anna Karenina is not a total success, but it’s a bold and creative response to the novel.” But for every good reaction, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The Daily Telegraph isn’t fully down on the movie yet yearns for the project to have turned out differently, noting that “It’s hard to watch Wright’s version without wondering what might have been, if only Knightley had a worthier scene partner than Aaron Taylor-Johnson.” New York magazine is in no doubt: “As boldly original a miscalculation as any you’re likely to see … It’s a tour de force in the wrong direction.”