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This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Countless versions of the saga of the ill-fated heroine Anna Karenina have been portrayed lavishly onstage and on screen for more than a century. This time, director Joe Wright‘s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy‘s novel, which centers on Karenina’s affair with a wealthy count, takes a different twist.
No stranger to the literary period film, the director of 2005’s Pride & Prejudice and 2007’s Atonement did not want to make yet another costume drama. Taking a cue from one of the themes of Tom Stoppard‘s screenplay — “All the world’s a stage,” borrowed from Shakespeare — Wright opted for a theater setting for Focus Features’ Anna Karenina, due out Nov. 16 and an awards contender for production design. Every scene is contained within a sprawling, decrepit Russian theater-stage set consisting of an auditorium, upper level, foyers and backstage that are all interconnected. The book’s narrative, by contrast, travels between St. Petersburg and Moscow. “The action would be taking place within a beautiful decaying theater which in itself would be omnipresent, a metaphor for Russian society of the time as it rotted from the inside,” says Wright. Opulent and well-choreographed balls held under gilt and crystal chandeliers, soirees that glitter under a starry night “sky,” an ice-rink sequence, an opera and a horse race were only a handful of the scenes executed ingeniously on the stage.
Reuniting BAFTA Award-winning production designer Sarah Greenwood with set decorator Katie Spencer — Karenina marks their eighth collaboration, including both recent Sherlock Holmes films — the $50 million epic production required the design of 100 unique sets on the theater stage (the same one used for wartime hospital scenes in Atonement) during an exhausting 12-week period at London’s Shepperton Studios. The trio immersed themselves in the worlds of high society, class and politics in Imperial Russia during the 1870s, cataloging hundreds of visual references — from books such as Orlando Figes‘ Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia to the 1935 film version starring Greta Garbo — for inspiration. “This was a completely different approach for a classic period drama,” explains Greenwood. “It involved the theatricality of the way people lived. They speak Italian when talking about art, French for society and German for business and philosophy. They were very well-mannered.”
The contrasting worlds of main characters Karenin (Jude Law) and wife Anna (Keira Knightley) and Anna’s brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), were depicted by set designs, says Spencer. Even the furnishings are character-specific: The marble floors, dark colors and hand-painted gilt motifs of Karenin’s apartment display aristocratic formality, while deep colors and masculine decor for the bedroom convey a claustrophobic marriage. Oblonsky’s home, with its ornate drawing room filled with toys and a softer color palette, is much lighter in feeling. (Because prop houses for Russian materials and antiques are few, the designers had to reupholster many items that already had been seen in other period films.)
The only scenes not shot on the set were the famous snow-laden train sequences (shot at a railway station where Greenwood designed another Law film, Sherlock Holmes), influenced by the 1965 epic Doctor Zhivago. Taking a page from Zhivago‘s legendary film designer, John Box, who used paraffin wax to create the environment of the iconic ice palace, Greenwood used snow as another metaphor to depict the coolness of Anna’s marriage.
Perhaps Law says it best of the film’s innovative production design: “The theatrical world that Joe has created is magical and fantastical.”
ON THE SET
Luxe Textures: Socialite Karenina (Knightley) is surrounded by jewel-toned brocades and damasks and ornamental gilt furniture, which signify the wealth and opulence of the Russian aristocracy during the 1800s.
Lavish Surroundings: The elaborate handcraft of Russian Imperial decor rivals work done for contemporaneous European royalty, including Versailles. Ostentation marked every detail, as displayed in this hand-painted mural.
Complex Patterns: The detailed patterns on the marble floor are echoed in the mirrored and inlaid wood panels that serve as a backdrop for the dining room set.
Star Furnishings: Oblonsky (Macfadyen) and Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) amid the grandeur of a Russian Imperial wood pedestal library table with gilt dolphin legs.
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