Seamus McGarvey earned an Oscar nomination for 2007’s “Atonement,” directed by Joe Wright. With “Anna Karenina,” McGarvey and Wright have reteamed for a fresh, audacious take on Tolstoy’s novel of love and jealousy in the pre-revolutionary Russian aristocracy. Playwright Tom Stoppard wrote the script with an elaborate theatricality and fluid scene changes in mind. More than 100 sets were built at Shepperton Studios in the U.K.
“The theatrical conceit allows you to be much more reductive in the staging without losing the profundity and resonance of the 900-page book,” McGarvey says.
Emphasis was placed on devising interesting segues from scene to scene, which are sometimes accomplished by wheeling in, pulling up or dropping down theatrical flats and backdrops. At times, judicious visual effects help sell the conceit. Dynamic lighting also plays an important role in these in-camera transitions, which might switch from a Moscow office to an exterior ice rink or a horse race.
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McGarvey shot 35 mm anamorphic for a widescreen proscenium. “I wanted to show the artificiality of the sets,but at the same time, I wanted to blend the textures and make associations between the theatrical world and the exteriors,” he says.
Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui not only oversaw the extensive dancing in the film, but sometimes structured more incidental movements as well. The camera was often a participant in these interactions, along with capturing them.
“In the depictions of St. Petersburg life, many frames have a brittle rigidity, and a kind of de-oxygenated, stern feel,” McGarvey says. “When we go out into the countryside, amongst the workers with their scythes, the camera has a much more lyrical feel to it, a gently eliding movement.”
The filmmakers were careful about the effect of their unusual approach on character. At a key moment, actors stare, disapprovingly, directly into the lens, with the intent of making the audience feel Anna’s hot shame.
“Actors looking straight at the camera does a terrifying thing to an audience,” McGarvey says. “That’s the really exciting thing about making any work of art: there are so many crystalized moments that might or might not come together. It’s almost alchemical, and when it happens, it’s the true magic of cinema.”
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