Although the boldness of Joe Wright’s theatrical approach to “Anna Karenina” has been unappreciated by most critics, there’s no denying the craft and beauty of both Sarah Greenwood’s production design and Jacqueline Durran’s costume design. The two really go hand in hand and it would be a shame if they went unnoticed by the Academy when the nominations are announced next Thursday.
Of course, when Wright abruptly switched in pre-production from a naturalistic style to a theatrical one (an elegant metaphor depicting 19th century Russian aristocracy rotting from the inside out in a derelict theater), it put Durran on hold until Greenwood could work out the design and colors of the sets.
“I discovered — and I’d never really known this before — that it’s actually quite hard to design a costume if you have no idea of the setting,” Durran admits. “And I work very closely with Sarah. It was still hard to grasp what it was going to look like with Oblonsky’s family living in a prop store. It made sense on paper and came together in the end, but it was quite tricky for a while. It slowed things down. There was no practical reason why we couldn’t get on with it. But it was so difficult to imagine.”
Meanwhile, Durran was already wrestling with another off-beat brief from director Wright: instead of sticking with 19th century Russian designs, he wanted to emphasize 1950s couture. But it made complete artistic sense to Durran. “It was not something that I would undertake to stylize just from my own imagination, but it’s a very happy combination because the two shapes fit together quite well. Because in 1873, there was a move toward a small waist and a fitted bodice and the ’50s couture is very similar. There wasn’t a clash. I think one of the reasons he chose the ’50s was that he wanted me to concentrate on silhouettes rather than surface detail and ’50s couture is very strong on silhouette.”
It worked well with the theatrical concept in which Tolstoy’s characters are like puppets being manipulated by revolutionary events beyond their understanding or control. The entire aesthetic was therefore predicated on subtraction, and never more so than with Jude Law’s Karenin. Indeed, the actor latched onto the idea of removing details and they gave his character an air of monasticism with his dressing gown and nightshirt.
However, after successfully dressing Keira Knightley in “Atonement” and “Pride & Prejudice,” Durran found the actress extremely flexible if vocal about her costume choices. For Anna, in fact, Durran studied Lanvin, Christian Dior, and Balenciaga along with 19th century Russian costumes. “I looked at old photographs from the 1870s, fashion plates, pictures of actual garments,” she continues. “I also looked through books of ’50s couture to see how they would fit together. And I didn’t watch any of the previous ‘Karenina’ movies.”
Anna’s thematic color scheme begins dark (especially with the red she wears at the beginning) and then grows somewhat lighter in tone when she falls in love with cavalry officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), before returning to the darker hues as she grows more anxious and paranoid.
The shorthand between the filmmakers made it all come together smoothly and organically. A good example of the close collaboration is when Anna is in the blue hotel room at the end of the movie. There was a lot of discussion about the color of her kimono. “The set is so strong and the kimono was always an open issue,” Durran explains. “I had in mind an egg yolk gold kimono, which Joe had also liked, but we continued to debate that choice and every bold choice among us.”
It was all part of the fun of playing Russian dress up with Tolstoy’s timeless classic.