TORONTO – Don’t let anyone ever say Joe Wright is easy on himself. Ever since his acclaimed directorial debut “Pride & Prejudice” he has pushed cinematic boundaries while working within the confines of traditional narrative media.  “Anna Karenina,” which screens at the Toronto International Film Festival tomorrow and just opened in the U.K., finds Wright walking Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel along a fine line of period and postmodernist cinema.  It’s a very dangerous game to play artistically and narratively, but, for the most part, it works.

Adapted by Oscar winner Tom Stoppard (“Shakespeare in Love”), Wright’s version of “Anna” sets Tolstoy’s tale of love, betrayal and cultural shame in an unconventional theatrical setting.  It’s not that Wright and D.P. Seamus McGarvey (“Atonement”) shoot the drama head-on as though you’re watching the action take place on a stage. Instead the stage and the theater surrounding it become the abstract playground for most of the film’s proceedings set in the upper-class world of 19th century Russian society. Wright has already made a name for himself as a visual stylist, but working with McGarvey, production designer Sarah Greenwood (“Atonement,” “Sherlock Holmes”), editor Melanie Ann Oliver (HBO’s “John Adams”) and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui he takes his work to another level. With “Anna” Wright tops his iconic one-take battlefield shot in “Atonement” at least three times during the first half.  Other filmmakers such as Baz Luhrmann have dabbled in this theatrical style in their own work, but Wright and Oliver care less about tone than the visual aspect of the work. The duo spin sets and actors it into a dizzying portrayal of an Imperial Russia more concerned about its social games than its happiness.  Unfortunately, Wright starts to let the pedal off the gas in the film’s third act.  That's when “Anna” loses some energy and things start to become far less interesting.  There is a lot to soak in from “Anna” and the picture demands a second viewing, but first and foremost you have to give credit to Wright for pushing himself when other filmmakers might take the easy way out.

From an awards season perspective, nominations in the creative fields such as production design, cinematography, costumes (Jacqueline Durran), original score (Dario Marianelli does it again) and hair and make-up (Ivana Primorac) are almost a given.  Oliver might also find herself in the editing field five, but that will largely depend on how the Academy and industry receive the picture.

In regard to the performances, Wright is assisted by a superb cast including impressive work from Jude Law as Karenin, Kelly Macdonald as Dolly and Ruth Wilson as Princess Betsy.  The real standouts, however, are Alicia Vikandar as Kitty (she's also fantastic in “A Royal Affair,” releasing in Nov.) and Matthew MacFayden stealing every scene he’s in as Oblonsky.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson is fine as the debonair Vronsky, but it seems as though Wright isn’t that interested in how his character seduces Anna, but in Anna’s reaction to the seduction, which limits his impact. It’s another interesting role for the 22-year-old to add to his increasingly impressive resume though.  Knightley’s work, on the other hand, is hard to discern.  

This is the third time Knightley’s collaborated with Wright and you could easily claim this is the best work of her career. The problem is that when the film slows down, you’re supposed to care about Anna’s predicament the most. Surprisingly, the opposite occurs.  Knightley is giving it her all, but there isn’t the same emotional reaction for the viewer that Wright was able to conjure with her in “Pride” and “Atonement.”  And yet, you really can’t blame it on Knightley.  It may be that whether Wright wants there to be one or not, this “Anna” just doesn't feature the tearjerker ending some would expect from the source material.  Still, and it’s not meant as a backhanded compliment, Knightly could find herself with another Oscar nomination depending on the strength of the best actress field over the next few months.

As for a best picture nomination, that may be a long shot at this point for distributor Focus Features.  “Anna” will clearly have its fans and become an example of pushing the boundaries of the medium in film schools, but at this point it’s hard to see it making the field ahead of other Focus releases such as “Moonrise Kingdom.”  And, with “Anna” not hitting U.S. theaters until November, it may be some time until we have a true verdict on its best picture chances.

“Anna Karenina” opens in limited release on Nov. 16.