Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of AwardsLine.
The Anna Karenina design team had to switch gears fast when director Joe Wright decided to set Anna’s oppressive high-society world inside a theater instead of shooting on location in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Money talked; location shooting would have blasted the film’s modest $31 million budget. Production designers had only 12 weeks to create interior and exterior “locations” that could exist within the confines of a theater set. In this stylized approach, the movie audience is aware of the theater, but the movie characters are not. The walls around Anna become literal, not figurative. “A Rubik’s Cube is often how we described this film: You’d twist it and then, suddenly, you’d twist it again, and it would just fall apart in your mind,” says production designer Sarah Greenwood. “You’re not just making pretty pictures here; you are telling a very big story.” Greenwood and set decorator Katie Spencer talk about putting together the puzzle of the living room set for the Moscow home of Oblonsky, Anna’s brother.
1) This scale model of the Oblonsky house stands inside the larger Oblonsky living room set, which in turn stands inside the larger theater set. Designers liken the layers of interiors (and meaning) to Russian nesting dolls. Keira Knightley’s Anna and the children look like giants trapped inside the ornate small-scale house. Although she is visiting her brother’s family in Moscow, Anna, from St. Petersburg, still appears caged the way she is in her own austere home and loveless marriage.
2) Greenwood and Spencer designed this colorful, richly textured interior to contrast Anna’s life in St. Petersburg with her brother’s life in Moscow. Greenwood says that during this period, Moscow borrowed from the exotic Eastern style of the Ottoman Empire and was “rejoicing in its Russian-ness,” whereas design was more spare and Western in St. Petersburg. The chaotic scatter of pillows, musical instruments, and children’s toys also highlights the difference between the earthy, boisterous Oblonsky home and the passionless lifestyle of the Karenina family.
3) This little theater-in-a-box is a child’s toy, but also represents a scale model of the larger theater set. Inside the small theater, the stage is set for The Nutcracker ballet (a detail audiences might never notice, but that became a fun project for art department assistant Martha Parker). Another insider’s treat: The little blocks on the ministage are a miniature version of the medium-sized alphabet blocks Levin uses to propose to Kitty in a later scene. Completing the trio: On this set, up high and to the right, are several alphabet blocks in a larger size.
4) The designers call this gold chair and footstool “transition pieces” from the living room set to the theater’s backstage area, represented by the empty picture frames and painted flats stacked behind and alongside the chair. Light streams into the theater through a window piled with snow. In the movie, this prop-shop area is the theater’s basement, but the actual set was built on the same level as the rest of the theater spaces. The chair is draped with a 100-year-old real leopard skin rented for the production (law would prevent the use of a new fur from an endangered species). In late 19th-century Moscow, Spencer observes, there was no such thing as too much opulence, or too much gold leaf.
5) The doll fits into the story, but also pays homage to director Joe Wright’s upbringing. The English director’s parents founded Little Angel Theater, a puppet theater in Islington. “The doll she’s holding is a puppet, and that little puppet was made by Joe Wright’s mother,” says Spencer. “Keira (as Anna) also uses the puppet when she talks about when she was first married and how she believed in love.”