Tuesday, 16 December 2014

All the Worlds A Stage

Anna Karenina was never a film I thought that I would love but thanks to the clever theatre structure of the film and beautiful set design I found myself drawn into the story. After watching the film I wanted to take a deeper look into the design process the art department went through in order to come up with one of the most original set designs I’ve seen within a movie to date. The films setting takes place within a singular theatre, the space is then adapted to portray Moscow or St.Petersburg where the majority of the story of Anna Karenina takes place. The versatile set design was not only able to appear effortless in its scene changes but also managed to portray social and cultural aspects. In particular I was interested in finding out how award winning Set Designer Sarah Greenwood, who worked on the project alongside director Joe Wright, interpreted Tolstoy’s portrayal of Russian high society and the ever changing influences of Europe in Nineteenth Century Russia through the singular theatre set within which the film takes place.

Trailer (2012)

Production Design - Set Sketches

Nineteenth Century Russia – Tale of two cities

During the time in which Tolstoy was writing Anna Karenina, Russia had been experiencing an influx of Western thought, politics, and technology, more popularly known as progress (Millner, 2001). Director Joe Wright therefore came up with the idea of setting the movie in a derelict theatre, in order to give the feel of decaying 19th century Russian Society (Fox, 2012), whilst allowing a juxtaposition of the modern European influences (in particular Louis XIV's France) seen in the sets created for scenes in the new capital, St. Petersburg, against the spaces designed for the robustly Russian traditions of Moscow.

The above images are examples of the interiors of The Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, built in 1824.

An example of the interiors of the Palace of Cathererine the great, in Tsarkoye Sello, St. Petersburg built in 1749. The interiors were comisioned by Alexander I in 1817 to be refurbished in the Empire style, previously called Louis XVI style.

Film set; Anna Karenina's Saint Petersburg Residence - where the film opens

Film set; Moscow restaurant
High Society - Ballrooms and Chandeliers

Through the story of Anna Karenina Tolstoy offers an amazing portrayal of the rules and rituals typical of Russian High Society during the nineteenth century, “dinners, balls, parties, horse-riding and croquet games” (Millner, 2001).  However Russian high society was gradually beginning to erode in the second half of the Nineteenth century due to the changes in social composition, legal status, and cultural attitudes. (Woodworth, 2007). “Framing [the set] in this derelict theatre was a fantastic concept, given the theatricality of high society in St Petersburg and Moscow at the time,” Greenwood said, noting it also allowed them to move between scenes, from restaurants to ice-rinks to racecourses, "with dizzying fluidity: rarely has a production designer’s work been so foregrounded in a film" (Fox, citing Greenwood 2012).

Film set; Ice Rink

Film set; Ballroom

Of the scene below, Greenwood (cited by Murphy 2013) commented on the design process for the choice of wallpaper used in the set stating...“In this image, the back wall was in fact the wallpaper we saw on our trip to Russia in a room in the Summer palace of Catherine the Great...When we got back to the U.K and looked at each other’s pictures, it was a photograph that we’d all taken....Clouds and other heavenly elements were added to the design and this is how the set appears in the film".
Film set; Ballroom

A 19th century painting of the Ballroom in the Winter Palace, St. Petersburg, Russia. 

Greenwood not only allowed popular social and cultural ques from Russia durring the nineteenth century to shape and design the sets she created, she also drew upon the characters psychological condition for some of the key design choices, in particular the scene where Anna suffers a breakdown in the Moscow hotel. In choosing the perusian blue silk damask that drapes the walls and upholstery in the room, Greenwood (cited by Dawes, 2012) stated that, “At that point she is morphine-addicted and coming apart, so we created an oppresive room and colour, and put mirrors down the hall to make it even more disorienting.” 

The Production design team, including Sarah Greenwood and director Joe Wright, visited Russia pre-production in order to view the architecture aswell as conducting research on the design styles of that period. Due to artistic liberties being taken elsewhere in the production design, Sarah Greenwood was adament that the set design needed to stick to the traditional nineteenth century look and worked closely with an illustrator named Eva Kuntz to create the concept art (Murphy, 2013). "The overall undertaking was enormous in retrospect...requiring ingenious transitions between theatrical space and another to maintain an illusion of seamless movement"(Greenwood cited by Dawes, 2012). Reporter Killian Fox asked designer Sarah Greenwood in an interview whether all the "mayhem" and "hard graft" was worthwhile, Greenwood (cited by fox, 2012) responded by saying, 

"With hindsight, it wouldve been dull had we just done a period drama...This was much more exciting."

Creating the Extraordinary World of Anna Karenina Featurette;

This short video gives an insight into the desicion behind chosing a singular set for the film aswell as the reactions of the cast and crew and some of the challenges and creative solutions, of worrking with a singular set. As Joe Wright says in the start of the video, he visited many of the locations in Russia, speaking to people who told him that numerous film versions of Anna Karenina had already been shot there. This appeared to be the driving force behind the singualr set desicion. An idea i personally feel has benefited the film and as actress Keira Knightley states, changes the rules of a period drama. The subsequent design of the theatre and creative scene changes aswell as the translation of cultural and social aspects of that time through the design, means the beautiful and lavish sets make the film look and feel very different to any period film i had seen before, i just could not turn it off. I have seen a few plays and musicals in theatres and expect parts of the experience to require my imagination but i have never seen the malgamation of theatre and film quite like this before and thought it worked fantastically. I would definately recommend watching this film if you havent seen it already.


Amy Dawes. (2012). All the film’s a stage in ‘Anna Karenina’.Available: http://variety.com/2012/film/news/all-the-film-s-a-stage-in-anna-karenina-1118063231/. Last accessed 16/12/2014.

Bradley Woodworth. (2007). Aristocracy in Late Nineteenth-century Russian Society. Available: http://www.portalus.ru/modules/english_russia/print.php?subaction=showfull&id=1188912035&archive=&start_from=&ucat=7&. Last accessed 16/12/2014.

Caille Millner. (2001). Anna Karenina Themes. Available: http://www.gradesaver.com/anna-karenina/study-guide/themes. Last accessed 16/12/2014.

Killian Fox. (2012). How Joe Wright's vision of Anna Karenina was brought to life. Available: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2012/sep/02/joe-wright-vision-anna-karenina. Last accessed 16/12/2014.

Mekado Murphy. (2013). Below the Line; The Design of 'Anna Karenina'. Available: http://carpetbagger.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/30/below-the-line-the-design-of-anna-karenina/. Last accessed 16/12/2014.

Other sites:


http://www.academia.edu/2189750/EXPERIMENT_AND_EMIGRATION_RUSSIAN_LITERATURE_1917-1953 134


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