Just 12 weeks from shooting, director Joe Wright hit upon the crazy inspiration to set his “Anna Karenina” in a decaying Russian theater. And it was up to the art department to make it work, on time and on budget.
Since no appropriate venue could be found, the London-based crew built one from scratch on the same Shepperton Studios soundstage that had hosted Wright’s “Atonement.”
“It was a very fast decision to build our own theater — a big and expensive decision,” says production designer Sarah Greenwood. “But it was absolutely the right one.” Greenwood, along with set designer Katie Spencer and costume designer Jacqueline Durran, is a longtime Wright collaborator. Some scenes were shot on location, and during pre-production the team made reconnaissance treks to Russia. “Going there helped us understand the Russian psyche, how people lived, what objects they’d have around them, and the difference between life in St. Petersburg, which was Western and European, and in Moscow, which was robustly Russian,” Spence says.
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The trips also led them to frozen lakes near the Finnish border, where the historical structures used for Konstantin Levin’s country estate were discovered on Kizhi Pogost, an island in Lake Onega.
Still, most scenes were shot within the simulated theater, and the main challenge was to make full and creative use of that space.
The film’s horse race is perhaps its most audacious feat. While the animals actually raced at a track and were inserted onto the cramped stage using CGI, the grandstands and the paddock were done in the theater, as was the simulated death of Vronsky’s horse Frou-Frou after he plunges off the stage.
“The death of Frou-Frou is one of the most famous moments in the book, so we had to do it in a unique way, and it worked amazingly,” Spencer says.
Staging an ice-skating scene in the theater was another bold move. “It’s a small scene, and it took three days just to lay in the ice rink, so it was on the skids quite a few times, but we fought to keep it in,” Greenwood says.
She and Spencer relied on Anna’s psychological condition for some key choices, such as the Prussian blue silk damask that drapes the walls and upholstery in the Moscow hotel room where Anna Karenina, played by Keira Knightley, suffers a breakdown. “At that point she is morphine-addicted and coming apart, so we created an oppressive room and color, and put mirrors down the hall to make it even more disorienting,” Greenwood says.
In those scenes, Durran had Anna “only partially dressed” to symbolize her unraveling. Other times, Durran added special meaning to costumes. The elegant white ball gown worn by Anna with a Chanel diamond necklace in her disastrous appearance at the opera is the mirror image of the black gown she wears in her initial public flirtation with Vronsky at a ball. “They refer back to each other,” says Durran, adding that the use of color is “counter-intuitive. Joe likes to do the opposite of what you’d expect, and that’s an example of me doing the same thing.”
In the same vein, she imposed shapes and details from 1950s couture onto Anna’s 1870s gowns. “We understand the 1950s as a pinnacle of elegance and Anna is at the pinnacle of chic fashion in her society,” she says.
Their overall undertaking was enormous in retrospect, says Greenwood, requiring ingenious transitions between one theatrical space and another to maintain an illusion of seamless movement. “We just said, let’s just jump in there. If it works: brilliant. If it doesn’t, you can’t say we didn’t try. I love that bravery.”
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