Upstaging Tolstoy

“If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.”
– Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy was quite right when he wrote that, as you see, I did most definitely not expect or look for the perfection I found when I saw Anna Karenina for the first time.

I remember it very clearly, the impact this film had on me. I’d gone to see it in my final year of school, and upon returning from the cinema that evening, I went straight to my laptop and downloaded the film. I then proceeded to watch it, for the second time in one evening, into the early hours of the morning. I was that taken by the grandeur and sheer brilliance of the set.

I was, quite content.

12 Weeks before they were due to commence filming, director Joe Wright had an idea. What is to stop them from using an old derelict Russian theatre space? After all, Tolstoy’s novel is set in the time period following the Russo-Turkish war, a time where Russia had lost it’s own identity and had adopted that of the French. Thus, the symbolism attached is quite visually striking. All scenes filmed in the theatre, represent the show that Russian culture had become. However, the scenes that take place off-stage represent true Russian culture, still intact.

Image via nickgottschalk [1]
It then became the job of production designer Sarah Greenwood to bring this concept to life. Instead of buying an old Russian theatre however, they took to the empty planes of Shepperton, England, to build their own. And all this with no extra budget.

Some of the most impressive scenes include the horse race. Yes, Wright did in fact request actual horses to be raced inside of the newly built theatre. Or perhaps, the ice rink that had been built inside for Anna to be carted around on.

Image via Pushing Pixels [2]
For a more in–depth analysis, we can look at the main ballroom, the central hub for drama to unfold and tension to build. This is the space where Anna and Vronsky first interact and where the gap between the have and the have-not’s, is most evident. ­ The space is broken up in the same manner as a traditional theatre. Side flats make out the legs that stretch from upstage to downstage, opening up and flowing somewhat seamlessly in to the audience. The décor is true to that of the time, however there were some leniencies when it came to costuming. But that’s another thread to explore.

In the roof of the theatre, a whole other social scene takes place and moving across the grids and between the lighting bars, are the Russian peasants. There is a correlation here, between the theatre crew and the peasants, but not in any way insulting. It is merely to suggest, the cogs of Russian society, those who make it possible for the rich to function (here, connected to the actors) and for the real Russian to come through when the stage doors are opened.

In using one space, and constantly manipulating it to represent another, is a very strong manner of design that takes away from the realism of the set, consequently enriching the performance and keeping the viewers on their toes. It’s Tolstoy on screen.

“All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.”

– Leo Tolstoy





[1] “NICK GOTTSCHALK – ART DIRECTOR.” Anna Karenina. Accessed September 14, 2017.

[2] “Pushing Pixels.” Pushing Pixels RSS. Accessed September 14, 2017.

 [3]  “Seamus McGarvey BSC ASC / Anna Karenina.” British Cinematographer. June 22, 2016. Accessed September 14, 2017.


Reinette Roux

Reinette is a Master of Architecture student at The University of Western Australia. She enjoys doing the set and graphic design for The University Dramatic Society and has an ever so slightly concerning obsession with Instagram.

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