The big-screen adaptation of Anna Karenina is a visual feast. Bold and beautiful, its Bafta and Oscar nominations for production team Katie Spencer and Sarah Greenwood were always on the cards.
- © Focus Features
- © Focus Features
“Not according to us, though,” says London-based set decorator Spencer. “We were first nominated for the Bafta and we thought, ‘You know what British film is like, we’ve had one good day so it will be a bad day for us tomorrow — an Oscar nomination is never going to happen’. So we’re thrilled.”
Director Joe Wright’s twist on Tolstoy’s masterpiece is also in the running for the London Film Museum award for technical achievement at the 2013 Evening Standard British Film Awards.
The story of the affair between aristocratic Anna (played by Keira Knightley) and Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) lends itself to opulence. But despite its setting in late 19th-century Russian high society, most filming took place in a custom-built theatre at Shepperton Studios, with British buildings, such as Richmond’s Ham House, providing other backdrops.
"The Anna Karenina look is a mixture of extremes: the remote, frosty elegance of St Petersburg, where Anna lives, and the colourful extravagance of Moscow."
“We were going to do it as a traditional period drama. And 12 weeks before we were due to start shooting, the director came up with the idea to set it in a delapidated theatre, reflecting the decaying society,” says Spencer, who studied stage management before a stint at the Royal Court and BBC, leading to a career in film. “The stage was constructed in three months — from idea to shooting — as were the imposing steam trains, countless props and the house of Count Karenin (Jude Law).”
The Anna Karenina look is a mixture of extremes: the remote, frosty elegance of St Petersburg, where Anna lives, and the colourful extravagance of Moscow, where her philandering brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) is based.
“What I found fascinating was the absolute difference between Moscow and St Petersburg,” says Spencer. “St Petersburg is very Western-looking. It was built by Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia from 1682 to 1725, to emulate the leading cities of Europe. It was constructed almost at once, unlike London, which was built in stages and evolved. And it has a sort of abstract beauty that you can stand back and appreciate. Whereas in Moscow, you feel like you are in the heart of Russia. It is gargantuan, traditional and how you imagine Russia to be.”
The design is in the detail
There is a very distinctive Russian approach to design, explains Spencer. Fans of the style wanting to replicate it should never shy away from detail. Choose furniture with extra carving or more gilding. Think of deep reds, the layering and the vibrancy of a piece. “Interiors can never be too gilded or flamboyant,” she says.
Anna Karenina followers should go to Turnell & Gigon (turnellandgigongroup.com) and Beaumont & Fletcher (beaumontandfletcher.com) for fabulous fabrics. Watts & Co (wattsandco.com) provided trimmings. Spencer and her team trod this path. “These more ornate, rich fabrics worked well for the Karenin bed, Vronsky’s bed and the blue fabric on the wall at the Grand Hotel,” she says.
Smart shoppers could buy a piece from the Anna Karenina set to have at home. The hero pieces, such as the big dolls house in the Oblonsky prop room, little model train sets and letters that Levin sends to Kitty, are stored in an archive. But a lot of the items were sold to a company called One Kings Lane (onekingslane.com) which then sells them online and at auction.
Antique markets are also a must. “The market at Kempton Park, Sunbury (sunburyantiques.com) is a saving grace. Quite often you will bump into someone else from a movie there. It’s a great starting point and not too expensive,” says Spencer. Her other tip would be Tring (tringmarketauctions.co.uk), a 41-minute train journey from Euston. Then there is Portobello (portobellomarket.org) and Gray’s (graysantiques.com).
Once items have been sourced, mix and match them as much as possible. “London has a knack for combining contemporary and classic. You could team a nice Regency armchair with a modern, bold fabric or vice versa.” And work with what you have. “Design works like an alphabet. It is how you put it together. Different combinations make for a completely different look. You and I are living in the same period in London but I guarantee that, even if we had the same furniture, your house and mine would look different.”
Set-making is like revamping your home, Spencer says. “If you really want a look, for a film set or home, it is entirely possible to achieve it. We didn’t have an enormous budget and we had to reuse things an awful lot. There are only so many antiques you can buy, so hard-to-find items, such as oil lamps, were upcycled,” she reveals.
One of the biggest challenges was sourcing the theatre chairs. “Russian opera houses and theatres are different from London venues such as the Royal Opera House and audience seats look more like dining chairs. But we were not going to find 250 chairs, in our colourway, distressed and slightly Russian-looking.” So the team bought from British company Dutch Connection (dutchconnection.co.uk), had upholstery woven by Jason D’Souza (jasondsouza.co.uk) at Chelsea Harbour Design Centre, painted and distressed them.
Sets truly come to life when the actors walk on. “We talk the actors around it, pointing out props that are most relevant. The hope is that actors will be intrigued by their environment.”
Away from the cameras, the designer lives with her partner in a minimalist Maida Vale mews house. But she has an “eclectic and odd” place in Somerset, inspired by sets she has worked on. From Charles II’s bed drapes and curtains to Miss Pettigrew’s Thirties sofa, visitors will stumble across quirky finds from shows and movies. Her world is a stage.
Anna Karenina is available on DVD and Blu-ray from February 4.