"Anna Karenina" is a gorgeous mess the famous Tolstoy character and the new film version of the novel.

Director Joe Wright, who previously directed the historical romantic dramas, "Pride and Prejudice" (2005) and "Atonement" (2007), also starring Keira Knightley, who plays the title character, Anna Karenina, reached for opera and instead got soap opera.

Wright apparently made a conscious effort to not be repetitive of other critically-acclaimed movie versions of the Leo Tolstoy classic (published in installments 1873 - 1877).

"Anna Karenina" (1935) starred Greta Garbo and "Anna Karenina" (1947) starred Vivian Leigh in the title roles. There also has been a 1997 movie starring Sophie Marceau, a 1967 Russian-language version, several made-for-TV versions, and a television mini-series.

So, maybe we should pity not only director Wright, but Knightley, whose portrayal of Anna Karenina is up against comparisons to Greta Garbo and Vivian Leigh.

What were they thinking? How dare they? Well, they dare. And one should give them credit for trying.

Knightley is up to her usual pouts, jaw grimaces and blank stares. It's not that her performance is precisely bad. It's just that it's wanting. She does wear the gorgeous costumes well. Surely, "Anna Karenina" will be an Oscar costume front-runner.

Alexis Karenin (Jude Law) is the most successfully-drawn character.

In fairness, Knightley may have been constrained by the film's odd structure. In the screenplay by Tom Stoppard ("Shakespeare In Love," "Brazil"), the film opens on a stage in a theater, replete with footlights, exits that theater seemingly at random, and returns again, also randomly. Main characters traipse up and down ladders and on walkways in the backstage fly space (with the ropes, pulleys, and rigging) above the stage.

This approach creates emotional distance for the movie-goer at key moments.

For example, the horse race is depicted as happening on the stage. Grand ballroom scenes are staged with characters frozen in place, while Anna (Knightley) and Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) spin and twirl in each others' arms.

Clerks in an office rubber-stamp documents in synchronized exactitude.

Model trains depict what is too crucial a plot point to leave to an art director's whim.

Admittedly, there are breath-taking scenes of snowy landscapes and country retreats, fields of wildflowers and richly-appointed mansion interiors.

Yet, seldom does one get the sense of 19th-century Moscow or St. Petersburg, or "Russian-ness" as does one with, for example, "Doctor Zhivago" (1965). Perhaps that was bogus, too. Even so, it felt real.

If you liked director Baz Lurhrmann's "Moulin Rouge!" (2011) or director Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" (2010) \m and I didn't like either \m then this "Anna Karenina" may be for you.

As for me, give me Garbo, darling, anytime.

"Anna Karenina," MPAA Rated R: (Restricted. Under 17 Requires Accompanying Parent Or Adult Guardian); for some sexuality and violence; Genre: Drama; Run time: 2 hours, nine minutes; Distributed by Universal Pictures-Focus Features.

Credit Readers Anonymous: "Anna Karenina" was filmed at Shepperton Studios, England, and Kizhi, Russia.

Box Office, Dec. 7: "Skyfall" rose to No. 1, where it had opened for the Nov. 9 weekend and then continued at No. 2 for three weeks, $11 million, $261.6 million, five weeks.

"Rise of the Guardians" also rose, from No. 4, to No. 2, $10.5 million, $61.9 million, three weeks.

"The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2" dropped No. 3, after three weeks at No. 1, $9.2 million, $268.7 million, four weeks.

4. "Lincoln," $9.1 million, $97.3 million, five weeks; 5. "Life of Pi," $8.3 million, $60.9 million, three weeks; 6. "Playing for Keeps," $6 million, opening; 7. "Wreck-It Ralph," $4.9 million; $164.4 million, six weeks; 8. "Red Dawn," $4.2 million, $37.2 million, three weeks; 9. "Flight," $3.1 million, $86.2 million, six weeks; 10. "Killing Them Softly," $2.7 million, $11.7 million, two weeks; 12. "Anna Karenina," $1.5 million, $6.6 million, four weeks

Unreel, Dec. 14:

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," No MPAA rating as of deadline. Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit, travels to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim a treasure stolen from dwarves by Smaug the dragon. Peter Jackson directs the fantasy adventure starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage and Andy Serkis.

"Save the Date," R: Lizzy Caplan stars in the romantic-comedy about a woman on the rebound.

Read previous movie reviews by Paul Willistein at the Times-News web site, tnonline.com. Email Paul Willistein pwillistein@tnonline.com [1] and on Facebook.

Two Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes