Naomi Watts might have the market cornered on grandiose suffering, but I'd wager that no one in the movies cries more prettily than Keira Knightley. It's something about that stuck-out jaw with its hint of an underbite that trembles just so, and the never-not-smoldering eyes that fill perfectly with clear, glassy tears. She's a picture of Pieta-lite agony and it's come in handy in a lot of her better-known roles. And it's perhaps never been put to more, if not better, use than in the new adaptation of Anna Karenina, directed with exquisite visual flair and little emotional intelligence by Knightley's frequent collaborator Joe Wright. This is their third outing together, previously making each other famous with a sprightly Pride & Prejudice and then burying each other in an avalanche of attractiveness in Atonement, and it's their least rewarding, a meticulously couture costume drama that fails to resonate in any sincere way.
For those unfamiliar with the story: Knightley plays Anna, a tediously married 19th century St. Petersburg lady of the aristocracy who finds herself drawn to the dashing young Count Vronsky (Aaron Johnson), a military man who's already caught the eye of Anna's unwed sister-in-law, trembling little leaf Kitty (up-and-comer Alica Vikander). Anna hopes that proper social mores will guide her away from these dangerous feelings, but, like a passive Lily Bart, she is ultimately helpless against them. And so a torrid affair begins, hearts are broken, Anna's husband (Jude Law) is enraged, and, like any good Russian story, things don't end terribly well. Beyond featuring a simple tale of adultery, Tolstoy's sprawling novel is stuffed with sociopolitical themes — polite society's crushing strictures, the legal shackles of marriage, the busy unhappiness of city people versus the simple pleasures of agrarian life — which pop up here and there in Tom Stoppard's clever but imprecise script, but they are muffled by reams and reams of fabric and other gilding that, by picture's end, become ornate symbols of annoyance rather than the eye-popping craftwork that they are. What is this Anna Karenina about? Oh, mostly a beautiful woman crying beautifully in beautiful places.