Anna Karenina opens Friday (see times below)

Our rating:

Joe Wright’s visualization of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel about adulterous passion is audacious: Set largely in a theater and deploying archaic 19th-century stagecraft, the actors, and their characters, navigate elegant artifice. The eye is never bored looking at the beautifully imagined sets by Sarah Greenwood, and the dazzling costumes by Jaqueline Durran that evoke the 1880s via Vivienne Westwood.

A weirdly choreographed waltz becomes a fascinating metaphor for all the bizarre machinations of society as it entwines with human nature. Wright seemingly has been influenced by the eccentric visions of Baz Luhrmann, but also by the exquisite jewels of Max Ophüls, like The Earrings of Madame de…

But, it is Tolstoy’s sympathetic understanding of human nature, as masterfully adapted by Tom Stoppard, which energizes Anna Karenina. Keira Knightley is at her very best, as a young woman, already long married, who is surprised by the depths of her lust for an imperious young cavalry officer, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). She careens heedlessly into an affair, urged on by Vronsky’s scandalous mother who reminiscences, “In the end, it’s better to wish that I hadn’t than wish that I had.”

Wright’s casting brilliantly makes a point about the transience of romantic love. Oblonsky, Anna’s merry philandering brother who always returns to his wife (Kelly Macdonald) and their children, is played by Matthew Mcfadyen, who only a few years ago was a heart-melting Mr. Darcy in the Wright-directed Pride and Prejudice. Jude Law, too, made pulses flutter not long ago, but here he plays Anna’s husband as a decent, boring fellow.

Whether he is revealing his actual receding hairline or wearing an unflattering wig, his appearance warns pungently that beauty is fleeting. Knightley, a lovely woman still in her 20s (has it been a decade since Bend It Like Beckham?), is maturing from the freshness of extreme youth into the slightest hint of aging and wear that Vronsky uses to justify his unfaithfulness.

Tolstoy sympathizes with his heroine, as do Stoppard and Wright, but certain truths echo through the meticulous historic settings down the decades into the present: Extramarital affairs are destructive. Children do not forgive their mothers for deserting them, no matter what the justification. Ostracism at the opera may seem archaic, but even today, each divorce causes social circles to choose sides. A married person madly in love with someone else clutches at happiness, but it often stays maddeningly, disastrously out of reach.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Dreams and delusions.”