English Placement: Oh, look! It’s Keira Knightley in another period piece.
English Placement: Oh, look! It’s Keira Knightley in another period piece.

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Oh Anna, you could have done better. The main problem plaguing Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina is the guy Anna (played by Keira Knightley, of course) has an affair with: Played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Count Vronsky is too young, too charmless, and too highlighted to inspire the kind of passion that would make a married aristocrat rip off her bodice. Not that Anna’s husband, Karenin (Jude Law), is a lothario, either. Balding and stoic—even after he’s told of the affair! —Karenin is a bucket of cold, sensible water that extinguishes any joy that may reveal itself in his presence.

If you can get past the leads’ lack of chemistry, however, Anna Karenina is a rather sexy tale of forbidden love in 19th-century Russia. (Never mind that everyone has British accents.) There are other romances (or nonromances) going on in Leo Tolstoy’s novel—adapted by playwright Tom Stoppard—from puppy love to more adultery, with a thematic emphasis on what love is and why people marry. As was proper back in ye olden days, flirtation was executed mainly through stolen glances or choreographed dance. (The film has a wonderful symmetry, particularly in the ballroom scenes, that lends it a theatrical flair.) But when the crinolines do come off, things get steamy—regardless of whether you sensed an attraction between the lovers or not.

And speaking of the theater, Wright oddly chose to set the action inside of one. But it’s not clear why. What does it mean when the train the characters are on—initially with no indication it’s not real—ends up chugging to a stop in the middle of an aisle? And what to make of a moment when characters are conversing on a backstage that soon opens up to the outdoors, where the story continues? The gimmick may be novel, but it’s distracting.

This is the third time Wright and Knightley have worked together (they also collaborated on Pride & Prejudice and Atonement), so the star seems comfortable in her corsets and high English. Still, all you’re likely to think is: Well, there’s Keira Knightley again. Wright’s muse may inspire him, but by now his go-to gal may leave you wishing that next time he, like Anna, try someone else.