Keira Knightley plays Anna Karenina, the Russian socialite trapped in an airless marriage to stuffy Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law). When she meets and falls in love with dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), she finds she's shunned by so-called polite society. Adapted from the Leo Tolstoy classic, this sees Knightley and director Joe Wright courting porfessionally for the third time after Pride & Prejudice and Atonement to produce an elaborate romantic tragedy. Won an Oscar for Best Costume.
The world of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is a murky, old-fashioned one, a world where the values and laws seem outrageously unfair and yet none the less, few of the characters are easy to like.
But although the classic novel has been adapted for the big screen six times in English alone (and several more in other languages and for the small screen), it has for the most part failed to capture this sense that the characters are as much to blame as their circumstance. One adaptation even imagined a less tragic ending for its American audience, where Greta Garbo's Anna was reunited with her lover.
But Tolstoy's Anna (marvellously played here by Knightley), was far more Madame Bovary than Helen of Troy, her ambitious but kind politico husband making the affair with young Vronsky seem at least at times selfish. She is someone whom we pity but also think is pitiful, a spineless, whimsical creature who has a choice and yet at every turn takes the wrong path.
Joe Wright, who has directed Knightley twice before in Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, manages perhaps for the first time ever to give us an Anna who invites both our pity and our scorn.
Wright has said in interviews that Knightley "has grown up" and her performance certainly has. She is wild, passionate, womanly, veering wildly from composed belle of the ball to pathetic girl in the feverish grip of an infatuation that makes her monstrous, eventually even to herself.
Surprisingly given her past collaborations with Wright, Knightley is actually playing against type here. Normally we are supposed to find her likeable in a strong sort of way, but here she is unlikeable in a weak way.
For those unfamiliar with the story here it is: Princess Anna Karenina and her very moral older husband, Count Alexei (played here by Jude Law, also against type) are an integral part of St Petersburg high society.
At the novel's opening, she travels to Moscow to counsel her brother's wife, on whom he has cheated. While there she meets a young army officer, Count Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson), and the two fall instantly, passionately in love. At first they fight it but then succumb. Whereas the law and society forgave her cheating brother, Anna's fate is far less benign.
The novel has another parallel story - that of the countrified Levin and his love for the pure and innocent Kitty. Unlike most adaptations Wright gives it almost equal weight here, helping to balance out the grand emotions and theatrics of the central romance.
Do we want melodrama and wealth, the film, as the book, seems to ask? Or would a quieter, steadier sort of love and life be better?
As with his other films, Wright's great strength is creating atmosphere, although here it is far more theatrical, exchanging sweeping shots of Russian cityscapes and grand set pieces for artificial curtains and theatre stages to divide scenes, as if this were all a play.
It's rather Baz Luhrmann-esque and for some will take a bit of getting used to - and we'll never know if the realist Tolstoy would approve of such devices. But its unusual and brilliant effect is that it focuses the mind on the characters and their actions. Who cares where these people are? It is what they do that matters.
There is not a single weak link in the cast, all of whom play their roles perfectly, with special notice going to Knightley herself, to a very amusing Matthew MacFayden as her brother Oblonsky and to Domnhall Gleeson (son of Brendan) as Levin.
This is an extraordinary film, a visual treat and an emotional rollercoaster that will keep you gripped all the way through even if you are familiar with the ending.
If anyone was worried Tolstoy's world might be too intense or outdated for modern audiences, they can rest assured: this is a very modern piece of film-making indeed.