Keira Knightley in "Anna Karenina"
Keira Knightley in "Anna Karenina"

The long-standing UK production company Working Title often walks a fine line, finding ways to make lavish-looking films with an original, even indie sensibility. Over the years they have benefited from being bankrolled by a Hollywood studio (Universal) but have earned themselves the creative freedom that prevents their films from ever looking like cookie-cutter studio product.

Their confident habitation of this middle ground is evident in the startling new adaptation of Tolstoy’s great novel "Anna Karenina," with Keira Knightley in the title role. It’s as visually splendid as any studio epic, even if it plays with audience expectations of what lavish looks like. It’s a respectable adaptation of a huge story, encompassing a wealth of ideas; yet it also has the direct, heartfelt appeal of what Hollywood once called ‘a women’s picture.’

Whatever faults its screenwriter Tom Stoppard and director Joe Wright may possess, as a director, timidity isn’t among them. Their collaboration in bringing Tolstoy’s masterwork to the big screen is one of real audacity; even when the movie falters occasionally, you feel obliged to applaud the ambition.

Between them, Wright and Stoppard have filleted and condensed this doorstep of a novel into two hours of screen time, fashioning it into a swirling, swoony, achingly romantic tragedy. Its witty premise is to present the story of doomed heroine Anna literally as a piece of theatre, played out beneath a proscenium arch with its own backstage, curtain and audience. But magically and playfully, Wright’s cameras open up the confines of the stage to expansive, exterior vistas; it’s dazzling to watch.

Stoppard has claimed that the theatrical setting was Wright’s idea, while his dialogue – an orthodox telling of Tolstoy’s story -- remained intact. Either way, all this is accomplished while keeping the sweep of the novel and its diverse themes broadly intact. With "Shakespeare in Love," Stoppard showed a flair for intelligent irreverence when approaching the work and legacy of a literary giant.  So this time around, it’s unsurprising that he doesn’t tiptoe around Tolstoy. And that’s a shrewd instinct: after all, "Anna Karenina" was originally published in instalments, complete with what we now call cliff-hangers; its melodramatic aspects are never totally absent.

Keira Knightley is an actress who, in Britain at least, sharply divides opinion. This is partly "tall poppy syndrome," a London-based aversion to Brits who make it big abroad, and especially in Hollywood. It’s also a troll thing: she seems doomed to be sniped at by anonymous people more obsessed by celebrity values and actresses’ looks rather than their skill. In fact, she’s a fine Anna – in turns charming, haughty, and dispirited. As usual, Knightley raises her game under Wright’s direction, as her work in "Atonement" and "Pride and Prejudice" has already confirmed.

Knightley, incidentally, looks resplendent in costumes designed by Jacqueline Durran, who also dressed her in those other two films of Wright’s and was Oscar-nominated each time. This may be her third time lucky.

In an all-British cast, Matthew MacFadyen stands out as Anna’s horny, insouciant brother Oblonsky, while Jude Law pleasingly reins himself in as her husband Karenin -- a dull, virtuous public man.

Yet it’s the visuals you remember: snow-covered toy trains, rooms of industrious clerks, backstage scene-shifting, a race between galloping horses across the cramped stage of a theatre. The sound too is startlingly vivid: knuckles crack and knees creak, while ingeniously horses’ hooves and the tapping of a railway engine’s wheels become something else entirely.