The third time isn't such a charm for director Joe Wright and muse Keira Knightley. Following success with Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, he has her again breaking societal boundaries in the pursuit of love, this time as the 19th-century anti-heroine of Leo Tolstoy's epic novel. Knightley is luminous in the role and yet she is still outshined by her director, who begs attention with every shot.
Bizarrely, there's a chirpy start to this famously tragic tale as brother Stiva (Matthew Macfadyen) anticipates Anna's arrival on a visit to Moscow from St Petersburg, a sequence that's so heavily choreographed you'll expect him to skip forth and burst into song. And yet, there is disharmony in the house thanks to his constant cheating on wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald).
Dolly pours her heart out to Anna, whose response is surprisingly pragmatic given her youth - politely encouraging Dolly to put up and shut up, or else be cast out of high society. Wright sets the domestic action on a stage, drumming home the point that these bourgeois types are mere performance artists, dancing to a tune that is out of whack with their true feelings.
He pursues Anna with a determination that is embarrassing, not just to himself but to her husband Karenin, a fusty old pillar of the community played by Jude Law in a suitably dignified manner.
The affair stirs many feelings hitherto repressed by Anna, but far from being a liberating experience, she finds herself cut off from the places she used to frequent and shunned by her so-called friends. Such treatment would make her a classic romantic heroine if not for the fact that she also risks being thrown out by Karenin and leaving their young son without a mother.
Knightley takes a character who can be prickly and, at times, just downright cruel and finds the humanity in her. Above all, Anna is a woman who is led by her emotions - difficult and tangled as they are - and this the actress makes clear without Wright having to chip in with images of chugging steam trains and flying sparks that are so obvious, it's almost laughable.
There are moments when Wright deliberately angles for comedy (Stiva feels like a Dickensian caricature), but more than that it's the theatrical staging and constant visual metaphors that block the flow of raw emotion, sapping the soul of Tolstoy's work. Wright is a special talent and the imagery is beautiful, but when it grates against the story, it becomes exasperating. And dull.
Tolstoy vilified the upper classes for their pomp and superficiality and yet Wright has fallen into a similar trap (working from a script by Shakespeare in Love writer Tom Stoppard), favouring a glossy look over probing insights into a complicated character. His film does tell a story of great love, but he could have expressed the same sentiment with less smoke and a handheld mirror.