02/22/2013 11:38 pm ET Updated Apr 24, 2013

The Wright/Knightley Trilogy

Anna Karenina, one of last year's most talked-about productions, is a product of a longstanding friendship between a director and his muse.

There is plenty that works in the newest adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's oft-told tale of a woman caught between rigid social norms and a passionate love that fails to transcend them. Joe Wright, the seemingly infallible filmmaking sensation who burst onto the scene in 2005 with his fresh take on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, delivers a version of Anna Karenina that manages to sidestep that traditional (and dangerously reductive) martyr-whore dilemma. Conscious of the fact that most audiences know exactly where the story, and particularly the main character, is headed, he generously foreshadows Anna's demise by utilizing train imagery throughout the film, creating palpable tension that is so often absent in costume dramas based on literary classics. It also helps that Wright once again trusts his longtime muse Keira Knightley to embody Anna's fervor and petulance.

The relationship between Knightley and Wright harks back to that 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, the movie that cemented the young actress as a bona fide actress after Pirates of the Caribbean made her the rising movie star to look out for, and resulted in an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet. Much of that film's popularity was surely due to the refreshing physicality of the production -- Wright set much of the movie outside, his characters threading through mud and morning mist, conversing in drawing rooms as well as in pigsties. The spectacularly lush cinematography that would become a staple of Wright's, along with wonderful production design, never took away from the gravity and humanness of the characters. The directorial debut was a good indicator of what Wright's career -- particularly his artistic marriage with Knightley -- would become: a visceral, stripped-down vision of glamor and opulence that works in support of the characters and never merely for its own sake. Even at the tender age of 18, Knightley was up for the challenge -- her Elizabeth Bennet embodied both the playful, young spirit of Austen's beloved heroine and her untamed intelligence that breaks through the barriers of normative behavior whenever she is affronted by the sullen Mr. Darcy.

Then came 2007's Atonement, the adaptation of the acclaimed Ian McEwan novel, and the second Wright-Knightley collaboration. Here, three generations of great actresses (Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave) playing the abominable Briony Tallis, one of today's great literary characters, utilized extraordinary tactility. In contrast, Knightley played the enigmatic heroine Cecilia in the most minimal, mythical way possible. All of the agency and quiet determination she had exhibited in Pride and Prejudice was now gone -- her character instead became the embodiment of a muse, the tragic, beautiful creature that Wright got to dress in the most fluid and delicately erotic of costumes, particularly the much-celebrated green dress that has since been called one of the greatest movie costumes of all time.

Which brings us to Anna Karenina, a film that could easily be considered the third part of a Wright-Knightley trilogy. Apart from the collaboration, the film marks the third time Wright is adapting a literary work of great celebrity and acclaim. It feels like a combination of the two movies preceding it. In a featurette released on the film's official YouTube channel, Wright justifiably calls Knigthley "utterly fearless." Indeed, there is a great visceral quality to her Anna, particularly in scenes that call for uninhibited emoting. However, this palpability of affectation is contained in a film of extraordinary fragility -- the decision to set the action on a stage that, throughout the film, morphs and sometimes disappears altogether, only to reappear in the most surprising of scenes, makes the relationship between the characters that much more theatrical and nuanced. The unusual setting not only allows Wright to lay the "all the world's a stage" metaphor quite heavily onto his audiences (and rightly so, for it could be argued that the story would take a fairly different turn if the characters weren't constantly on display, admired and judged in equal measure by the rest of the society), but it also gives a much-needed freshness to the story by framing it as a dazzling dream rather than the hard-hitting drabness that often represents Russia.

Other than Knightley's thoughtful, versatile performance as the volatile Anna, the film boasts other familiar faces. Matthew Macfadyen, Mr. Darcy to Knightley's Elizabeth Bennet, here plays Stiva Oblonsky, Anna's brother, and provides a nice societal contrast -- unlike Anna's, his infidelities go tolerated and unpunished. Aaron Taylor-Johnson infuses the film with a jolt of youthful energy in the role of dashing Alexei Vronsky, playing him as an antithesis to Jude Law's Karenin. Law, in turn, manages to steal the show, adding a layer of humanity to the emotionally barren character in spite of a somewhat flawed Tom Stoppard-penned script that tends to rush the proceedings before the emotional impact has fully registered with the audience. The nuanced performances, coupled with sumptuous costumes and Wright's whimsical and innovative direction, are reason enough to reignite our passion for Anna Karenina, despite the imminent fatality that too passionate a love may result in. Ultimately, it is a platform for Knightley to demonstrate both her commandeering screen presence and acute understanding of the character, complemented by Wright's dazzling spectacle.