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Tragedy becomes farce in this awful 'Anna Karenina'

Film Review Anna Karenina
This film image released by Focus Features shows Jude Law, left, and Keira Knightley in a scene from "Anna Karenina." (AP Photo/Focus Features, Laurie Sparham)

I've long had a suspicion about Joe Wright, and "Anna Karenina" confirms it. The English director is very skilled technically, but he simply can't make a movie with a soul.

His 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel "Atonement" was beautiful, even wondrous, as in the long tracking shot of Dunkirk. "The Soloist" had a story of promise. And "Hanna" was more than intriguing. But something was missing from all these films.

If he couldn't find the soul in one of the most masterly novels ever written, I fear there's no longer any hope that the talented young filmmaker will ever make a great work of art. He had the best help here, too: Playwright Tom Stoppard adapted Leo Tolstoy's novel for the screen. But the dialogue is so pedestrian at times, it's hard to believe the writer of "Arcadia" actually had anything to do with it.

On screen
'Anna Karenina'
2 out of 4 stars
Stars: Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jude Law
Director: Joe Wright
Rated: R for some sexuality and violence
Running time: 130 minutes

The film opens like the beginning of an opera, with the sound of an orchestra tuning its instruments. The well-known story is certainly grand enough to be opera: A 19th-century married woman of virtue is relentlessly pursued by a dashing young count, finally gives in and finds happiness she never imagined, only to discover it short-lived.

But in making such a heavily choreographed work, Wright can't manage the emotional connection of an opera, let alone that of the more direct, intimate medium of film. "Paperwork is the soul of Russia. Farming is only the stomach," Anna's brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), wittily declares. But the military beat of the paperwork being stamped distracts from any deeper meaning to be found in it. Even the music, composed by Dario Marianelli, is a poor fit -- there's nothing tragic or Russian about it.

Or in the film at all, really. This adaptation of one of the greatest of Russian novels was filmed almost entirely on a London soundstage. The film shows none of the colorful beauty of St. Petersburg. The constant flashes Anna has of a train rolling on a track -- an obvious foreshadow of her fate -- are beyond ridiculous.

It's such a shame, because Wright can assemble a talented cast. Keira Knightley is enough out of the ordinary to at least suggest why Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) becomes immediately obsessed. In the novel, Tolstoy's alter ego Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) is as crucial a character as Anna, but he's barely used here.

When Anna finally leaves her husband (Jude Law), she's shocked to find she's shunned by society. As Vronsky points out to one of her former friends, "She's not a criminal." What is criminal, however, is a line like this, spoken in response: "I'd call on her if she'd only broken the law. But she broke the rules." Stoppard should be ashamed of putting his name on such a tragedy.