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Keira Knightley's 'Anna Karenina' aims to break new ground

March 30, 2011 |  6:56 pm

"Anna Karenina" was given a surprising vogue when Oprah Winfrey recommended the novel back in 2004. Suddenly people who wouldn't otherwise be inclined to Russian melodrama  could be seen lugging the encyclopedia-sized novel everywhere they went.

But you have to go back much further to encounter the story as a form of populist screen entertainment -- to the Vivian Leigh version in  1948, perhaps, or Greta Garbo's award-winning take in 1936. Leo Tolstoy himself had only been dead a few decades when those films came out, to give you an idea. (More recently, less well-regarded iterations have included a Jacqueline Bisset TV movie in 1985 and a Sophie Marceau theatrical film in 1997.)

But the pedigree on a "Karenina" production that aims to shoot later this year has a chance to bring the title back to its cinematic glory days. The triple threat of "Shakespeare in Love" writer Tom Stoppard penning the screenplay, "Atonement" director Joe Wright getting behind the camera and Keira Knightley playing the title role give it some pretty shiny bona fides.

Still, the question remains: What can 21st century storytellers bring to the epic love story that filmmakers from a previous generation couldn't?

Wright thinks there are plenty of opportunities. He told 24 Frames that a key difference with his and Stoppard's version (the two have been meeting in recent weeks to hash out the story) has to do with expanding beyond the scope of the title character.

"The Garbo version focused very much on Anna's story," Wright said. "And what Tom has written is a kind of multi-stranded portrait of a community."

He and Stoppard of course also have to deal with a 21st century problem: Anna's affair, so daring and scandalous to 20th century eyes, might merit little more than a shrug in some circles today.

The cast for the new film, incidentally, breaks down as follows: Knightley, who of course starred in Wright's "Atonement" and "Pride & Prejudice," will play Anna. Jude Law will star as husband Karenin and "Kick-Ass" star Aaron Johnson will play other-man Vronsky. (Teenage Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan could also be joining the cast, but Wright declined to confirm that.)

Wright said that the new movie -- which returns him to period territory after the contemporary action thriller "Hanna," which stars Ronan and is due out next week -- will explore some rich themes. "It affords me an opportunity," he said,"to learn not just about literature but also human emotion and the state of drama, and fidelity, and love."

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Keira Knightley in "The Edge of Love." Credit: Liam Daniel / Capitol Films