What’s old is gloriously new again in Joe Wright’s magnificent “Anna Karenina.” He boldly conveys the complexity of Tolstoy’s epic love story through the simplicity of a puppet-like theater, compressing time and collapsing space in a real theater. It’s an elegant metaphor depicting 19th century Russian society rotting from the inside out. Yet it’s wholly cinematic in its theatrical approach, evoking Olivier’s “Henry V” and Powell and Pressburger’s “The Red Shoes,” among others, and production designer Sarah Greenwood is the first to admit that it would’ve been a mistake to make a traditional period adaptation.
“There was talk of doing the paired down minimalism of Lars von Trier’s ‘Manderlay,’ but it was not firm so we carried down a conventional route,” Greenwood explains. “But shooting in Russia and how much it cost and the epic quality of the book and how we translate that into a 12-week shoot, it was all proving tricky. And then about 12 weeks out from shooting, when we realized we didn’t have enough money or time, Joe said, ‘We can do this — let’s set it in a derelict Russian theater.'”
It turns out that Wright was toying with the idea of theatrical stylization all along in terms of subtraction. At the same time he was thinking about childhood memories of the puppet theater. “You sit back and say you couldn’t have done it any other way,” Greenwood continues. “What we would’ve ended up with is something that was a tired, lackluster version of ‘Anna Karenina’ that we’ve seen before. It was brilliantly inspired. Everybody was energized. But it took a bit of formulating and getting together. Not only did we have to reconfigure everything but we also had to build this derelict theater from scratch, which was a challenge in itself.
“We were spread out across four stages at Shepperton and it was very involved on many levels, not just creatively and aesthetically. Joe and I spent a week together going over the whole script and figuring out how it could work. All Tom Stoppard had to add was a line in the script about it taking place in a derelict theater. We started building it as we started drawing it.”
Fortunately, months of research in Russia paid off when they were scouting locations; there was no way they could’ve pulled off the theatrical metaphor convincingly without first understanding the rules and behavior of pre-revolutionary Russian society.
“Russian society was so stylized and structured at the time that it was the perfect metaphor,” Greenwood explains, “like the scene at the soiree where they’re all whispering; it’s very mannered and fake. Joe also kept the Levin story in, which a lot of adaptations don’t, because he is the only true soul. As Oblonsky’s best friend, [the sensitive and compassionate landowner], he can pass through this fake world and back into the reality of Russia, which is the only time we shot on real locations. It’s a very good breather to have. Up until that point, it was very insular and claustrophobic.”
Of course, the horse race was one of the trickiest challenges, with racing scenes filmed separately by the second unit and then carefully worked into the center of the auditorium, where the upper class patrons sat at the top and the working class people were placed at or below theater stage level. In fact, Wright used the sequence in selling his whole stage idea to Focus Features and Working Title.
“One of the hardest ones for me was the transformation of Oblonsky’s office into the Angleterre restaurant because that was a physical thing that had to happen in camera,” Greenwood suggests. “One of the ones I really like is the soldiers in the woods drinking and we see Frou-Frou the white horse with the flag: it says it all with very little.
“And the train station really works because we’re dealing with real trains and the physicality of that and the fact that it is the arrival and departure of so many moments in the film. That was a very late revelation on my part where I suddenly woke up one night and said, ‘Well, actually what you do is take the theater to the station where we were filming and so we built the proscenium and the stage in the station.”
However, Greenwood is critical of those hybrid scenes — “the bastard children” — where they didn’t have the budget to build sets within the theater, which nonetheless was constantly changing 24/7. “The dueling scene at Oblonsky’s house where the countess is on the floor is one of those unresolved ideas,” she relates. “Had we limited that more, it would’ve been better. But at one point you see that it’s a conventional English house to my mind. There was no logic when we set out; it was a very instinctive process and I think it does generally work, which is an achievement. With Joe, it’s like panning for gold, but there’s always something there — he’s the puppet master.”