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Focus Features
Keira Knightley stars in “Anna Karenina,” which opens locally today.

Knightley finds new angle on ‘Karenina’

Both are iconic female characters, but Keira Knightley found playing Elizabeth Bennet more daunting than navigating 19th-century Russian society as Anna Karenina.

Both roles had been portrayed by other notable actresses, but Knightley says, “I think it was more frightening to take on Elizabeth Bennet in ‘Pride & Prejudice’ because she’s so loved and women see themselves as her.

“I don’t think Anna is the same thing in that way. ... She’s this kind of strange curiosity, and because of that, because she’s always slightly over there, I think it was less frightening.”

But Knightley, 27, found that a decade’s distance had changed how she viewed the character in Leo Tolstoy’s novel about doomed love, scorn and scandal in an image-obsessed society. The first time she read it, she was in her teens.

“I remember it as being this kind of amazing, beautiful romance and very sweeping, and I read it again last summer and went, this is really different. This is not how I remember it at all.”

The movie, which opens locally today, also stars Jude Law as her cuckolded husband, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the dashing cavalry officer who becomes the object of her desire.

At the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Knightley happily talked dancing, dresses and death. After all, Anna is a vain creature, a beautiful bird in a cage.

The heroine’s face is, increasingly, masked by heavy lace netting. Fur collars and bird feathers are reminders of death and her jewelry – save for one ruby the color of blood – are diamonds, the hardest known natural substance.

“We wanted that constant feeling of being trapped,” Knightley said.

Knightley recalled the metamorphosis of the movie project reuniting her with director Joe Wright.

He made “Pride & Prejudice,” which earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress (it was Reese Witherspoon’s year for “Walk the Line”) and later “Atonement,” a shattering story of Brits caught in the aftermath of a single devastating lie.

“When we first started talking about it, it was going to be a completely naturalistic telling of it. And we were going to go to Russia, and we were going to shoot mainly in St. Petersburg and around there and then, we started talking about it more, he was really getting into a more stylized version,” she recalled.

He took a page from Orlando Figes’ book, “Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia,” which suggests that in the ballrooms and salons of St. Petersburg, Russians performed their European manners almost like actors on a public stage.

“You’re doing something that’s been done so many times before and it’s with a team who’ve worked together a lot. You have got to try to push the boundaries, you’ve got to try and do something a bit different, because why wouldn’t you?” she asked.

“I think the worst that could happen is we fail but we’ll fail together, so let’s give it a go. Which is a nice sentiment,” Knightley said of this rendition.

Belgian-born Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who has worked with theaters, opera houses and ballet companies, choreographed the centerpiece dance.

“I think a lot of the stylized vision came from Joe having seen his work, being very inspired by what you could do with movement. So he got him to create this waltz that would equally tell the story – yin and yang melding type thing – which took us all about a month to learn and was incredibly complex but looks amazing.”

With Anna, Knightley’s not sure whether to like her or hate her.

“I don’t know if she’s being held up there for people to go, this is the whore of Babylon, this is the worst thing in the entire world, or whether you’re meant to go, this is the innocent, this is the victim. And the answer is both.”