It's a little more Joe Wright's Anna Karenina than Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, which will upset the purists, but this adaptation at least tries not to be another straight costume drama: Wright is determined to have fun with visuals, which is going to divide a lot of people.
Knightley plays Anna Karenina, the wife of Jude Law's Russian government official with whom she has a son and a well-to-do life. However, Aaron Johnson's dashing cavalry officer, Count Vronsky, turns her head and the resulting affair is a scandal. They're determined to let their love speak for itself but the constant whispers and sideways glances strip away her status
This is no straightforward adaptation - this Anna Karenina with a flourish, a voila! Wright employs an approach that's akin to Peter Greenaway in a party mood, a stagey production but one that's abuzz with activity. When a scenes ends, a penny-farthing or a brass band may move across the screen like an old-fashioned wipe. Sometimes, Wright will wholesale move the set around the actors - without moving, Knightley can find herself relocated from her bedroom to Law's office. Some actors hang about backstage waiting their cue, or spy on a scene unfolding from the catwalk high above the stage. All the while in the background, the extras move in unison, like a musical without the song-and-dance numbers. This showiness peaks with the beautiful waltz sequence; Johnson takes Knightley to the floor and as their passion unfurls their fellow dancers and the colourful world around them freezes. For that thirty seconds, they're the only ones in the world and it's just gorgeous.
But this is a style that can infuriate and distract from the story. Tolstoy was never shy on character numbers and although Tom Stoppard's screenplay trims back on a lot, it's tough to keep abreast of who everyone is, what is their relation to each other and what they are doing during the all-important set up when the sets are literally moving here and there.
However, once up to speed and accustomed to the style, Anna Karenina becomes belatedly engaging. Johnson, channelling a little Malkovich, and Knightley, channelling a lot of Knightley (for what it's worth, a fun Macfadyen channels Kevin Kline), smoulder when together but lose some pizazz when they give in to their feelings. What works best is the sub plot of the outstanding Domhnall Gleeson's socially conscious landowner and his love for Alicia Vikander's flighty Kitty, who has a thing for the caddish Vronsky.
Ambitious, beautiful but a tad standoffish and showy, Anna Karenina is however always entertaining