Anna Karenina has always had its admirers. Dostoyevsky called Leo Tolstoy's novel "flawless as a work of art". William Faulkner declared it "the best ever written". Such is the impact made by this 1877 epic study of Russian aristocrats that it has been reimagined as operas, a Broadway musical, ballets, a BBC radio drama, countless TV serials and a parody novel called Android Karenina. But turning it into a successful movie is a different matter. Not since Greta Garbo took the title role in the 1935 version has there been a truly worthy film adaptation.
Then again, Joe Wright and his actress-of-choice Keira Knightley have good form in this area - not least Wright's feature debut, the acclaimed 2005 take on Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice, for which Knightley won an Oscar nomination for playing Elizabeth Bennet. But that, as the actress notes, was then. "I think she was the perfect person for me to play at 19. I certainly couldn't have played Anna at 19."
A tragic heroine, Anna is shunned by her peers after she proves unfaithful to her husband (played by Jude Law) by being involved with the dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
Knightley, who had read the book as a teenager, returned to it to discover that even Tolstoy took a dim view of Anna's actions. "He doesn't go into her head very much. He stands outside, observes her and very often shoots her down. She's completely judged throughout," says Knightley.
For an actress who knows what it is like to be critiqued in the media, it is not hard to see where the appeal in playing Anna lay, though the 27-year-old claims she was drawn to examining Anna's less pleasant characteristics - her manipulative qualities, her neediness, her jealousy. "She is somebody where your immediate response is: 'Ooh, I don't like that.' And then you go: 'Oh God, I do that'."
Casting Knightley may have been a no-brainer for Wright who also worked with her on his 2007 Ian McEwan adaptation Atonement, but there were other considerations. When he began, he was planning a traditional period piece. "I was scouting places in Russia and they'd say: 'Yes, we have shot several Anna Kareninas here before.' So I felt like I was treading too familiar ground."
Secretly, he had been harbouring a different concept all along. "I already had the idea that I wanted a stylised performance," says Wright. "I've always wanted to make a film like this - and I held it like a guilty secret."
Wright's notion was to set much of the film inside the confines of a theatre - an idea that crystallised when he read Orlando Figes's book Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, in which the author described the members of 19th-century Russian society living their lives as if on a stage (often speaking in French and dressing like fashionable Parisians). "I thought this was a fascinating idea, this idea that a whole society was performing," he says. And so Stage C in Shepperton, England, was transformed into a theatre that would be turned into an ice-rink, a railway station and a racecourse with live horses.
Despite working from a script by the esteemed playwright Tom Stoppard - "I'm not sure that any lesser brain could've taken on the task," says Wright - this very theatrical conceit was a risk and the director was understandably nervous. "I remember coming home to my wife and telling her that I was planning to do this and she said: 'So you're taking a fairly commercial proposition and you're turning it into a deeply uncommercial proposition?' And I said: 'Yes' and she said: 'Go for it'. It was like something where I got a bit carried away."
Knightley admits she was initially nervous about the idea too, but then gave into it - a feeling of artistic abandonment that flows through the film's veins. "Actually, the worst that can happen is that we can fail," she says. "And we've all failed before. We all worked ourselves into the ground to make it work and that's the only thing you can do. If at the end of it, people go, 'I don't like it', then you go, 'OK, but we gave it a shot'." It might even gain Tolstoy a few more admirers.
• Anna Karenina is out now in UAE cinemas