Is Keira Knightley's new Anna Karenina film a gamble?

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Actress Keira Knightley, director Joe Wright and screenwriter Sir Tom Stoppard discuss their new film Anna Karenina, a version of Tolstoy's novel very different from any that have gone before.

"I think some people will really love it and I suspect some people will really hate it," says Keira Knightley of her latest venture, a new film of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

The 27-year-old is disarmingly frank about the prospects of Joe Wright's film, which takes a boldly stylistic approach to a novel usually rendered in a traditional, naturalistic fashion.

Having visited a variety of locations in Britain and Russia, Wright turned his back on convention in favour of an experimental, highly theatrical take on this 19th Century love story.

"It felt like I was treading the same ground again, which became slightly depressing," says Wright of his initial flirtation with straight period drama.

"I really felt I had to do something different with it."

As with previous adaptations - of which there have been several - the film tells the story of a government official's wife who embarks upon a potentially ruinous affair with a young cavalry officer.

'Possibly uncommercial'

The story that follows cleaves closely to how Tolstoy tells it. It is how that story is presented that sets Wright's third big-screen collaboration with Knightley apart.

Instead of stately homes or snow-covered palaces, this Anna Karenina largely unfolds inside a crumbling playhouse whose stage, wings and auditorium provide settings for the action.

Keira Knightley and Jude Law at the Anna Karenina premiere in London

At one point a railway station, at another a race course, the theatre becomes an all-encompassing world intended to reflect the characters' obsession with etiquette, decorum and manners.

Only when dealing with a parallel romantic subplot, involving subsidiary characters, does the movie adopt the tropes and trappings one would normally associate with glossy literary dramatisations.

"My wife said that I was turning a fairly straightforward commercial proposition into something that was possibly deeply uncommercial," smiles Wright.

"But I wanted something that felt hand-made and organic. I didn't want to make a plastic film; I wanted something that had some magic to it."

"We were doing a book that has been made into a film many times before," says Knightley. "What was the point of doing it the same way again?

"What we have on screen is naturalism most of the time, and this was totally going off into a different realm.

'Bold and beautiful'

"Normally in film you can sit back a lot more and let it wash over you," continues the star of Bend It Like Beckham and the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

"Doing it this way requires the audience to work in order to be a part of the experience."

"I wrote it as the conventionally realistic film everybody was expecting me to write," says playwright Sir Tom Stoppard, Anna Karenina's Oscar-winning screenwriter.

"But we've ended up with something bold and beautiful, done with a lot of tact and a lot of subtlety."

"The film we've ended up with was not necessarily the film that was scripted," agrees producer Tim Bevan.

"But the core of the film is the emotional interaction with the story, and that's as solid in this film as it would be in a traditional adaptation."

Like his colleagues, Sir Tom concedes the end result may not be everyone's cup of tea. "I've always thought the film would divide opinion," he shrugs.

"But I'd be feeling much more nervous now if this was the umpteenth, immaculate, costume drama version."

For his part, Bevan does confess to concerns about the film's box-office prospects. These, though, have less to do with aesthetics than with metereology.

"I'm looking out the window and seeing the sunshine as a potential challenge for the first time this summer," he says.

"That shouldn't be something you have to worry about in September."

Anna Karenina is out in the UK and Republic of Ireland on Friday.

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