Long story short: I loved it. I don't like the character Anna Karinina, I don't like the actress Kiera Knightly. Veronsky is far too pretty for my taste and the costumes are not even remotely accurate: 19th Century-oid, with a hefty side of Hollywood. I noted all these things in the first 10 minutes or so, and then did not give them a second thought. Because they didn't matter. I was enchanted, I was seduced, I was lost in admiration of Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard's melodrama of manners.
Briefly (because I have a duck to get in the oven), the overarching conceit of the movie is that the action of the novel is a play being performed in and around a slightly down-at-heel theater. Servants place furniture, change scenes, offer tea and papers, coats and corsets. Movements are choreographed, artificial, deliberate. The actors move from the stage to the flies and wings and under-stage, from the orchestra to the balconies to the foyer, from rooms that look like stage sets to exteriors that are utterly natural, depending on who is in the scene and what they're doing. It's very carefully thought out, very cleverly done. At first, mostly what I noticed was the cleverness of it, which went with the cleverness of Stoppard's script. It was delightful, it was charming. It wasn't particularly emotionally engaging, but then Stoppard isn't, always.
And then, in the exquisite ball scene, where Anna and Veronsky dance together, Kitty's heart is broken, and Moscow society begins to take notice, I ceased analyzing. I stopped consciously noticing which scenes took place in the theater and which shaded into more naturalistic settings (except for the horse race, of course, which was spendidly, effectively, theatrical), stopped thinking that no decent woman of the time would have been caught dead in a sleeveless gown and no gloves, stopped being aware of the cool and interesting things Wright does with sound (again, the horse race is a wonderful example, with the flutter of Anna's fan shading into the thunder of horse's hooves) and silence, with color, with composition. I was, in fact, in love.
I know now that I accepted an invitation to be Anna and Veronsky, to share with them in the complete unself-consciousness that surrounds a couple lost in dawning infatuation. I suspect that Wright is trying to overcome the camera's unbending 3rd person p.o.v and show us what Anna and Veronsky (and Kitty and Levin, whose story gets equal weight, as it should) were experiencing, moment to moment. I absolutely know that he is saying interesting and thoughtful things about society and rules and morality and about the soul-killing weight of knowing, every minute of every day, that you are being watched and judged. But that was for afterwards, for when I was in the lobby, watching the Thanksgiving crowds pour into the multiplex to see one of the 12 movies on offer while Ellen was upstairs trying to recover the lightbulbs she'd bought that afternoon and left under our seats. At the time, I was lost.
Also, I realize now, I liked the fact that none of the characters was easily parsed. Karinin is stiff and conventional and stifling, but also a good man. Levin is a bit of a dork, but really tries to understand both Kitty and his difficult brother and his responsibility to his land and his people. Veronsky genuinely loves Anna, even when she's behaving like a raving loon. And Anna is a conventional and not very complicated (or bright) woman who thinks she's braver and stronger than she actually is. They all seem very real, very individual, very human.
Like a lot of interstitial art, Anna Karinina won't be to all tastes. IMDB rates it 7 out of 10, I've read luke-warmish reviews pronouncing it good but not great, well-meaning and ambitious, but puzzling, artificial, and finally, dull. I found it risky and astonishing and beautiful and very, very sensual. I'll be interested, if you decide to see it, what you think. Because, man. It wasn't the usual literary adaptation. Not at all.