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Amidst the hi-tech paraphernalia (cameras, recording equipment, lights, cables, computer screens) on a bustling film set at Shepperton Studios on the outskirts of London, Keira Knightley is whispering to her young co-star as they prepare to film a key scene in a daring new British adaptation of one of the greatest love stories ever told, Anna Karenina. The star and the little boy seem oblivious to the constructive chaos that surrounds them.
Knightley is in full costume – a burgundy ball gown embellished with silver embroidery – as she prepares for a tender moment where Anna tucks her eight-year- old son, (played by Oskar MacNamara), into bed. She’s clearly doing her utmost to put the youngster at ease.
Minutes later, after a make-up artist has given both a last dab of her brush, director Joe Wright says: “Okay, let’s go.” The cameras roll and Knightley instantly becomes Anna Karenina, the tragic heroine of Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece, first published in 1873 and an enduring classic to this day.
Anna is a wife, a mother, about to embark on an all consuming, scandalous affair that will, ultimately, take her away from the child she loves. The scene is loaded with foreboding about what she is about to sacrifice for the passion that overtakes her previously well-ordered life.
It is, of course, a role every young actress would want to play. And it could well be the one that wins the beautiful young English star an Oscar.
But Anna Karenina’s journey to the screen has been eventful. Just 12 weeks before the production was due to start filming on locations in Russia and the UK, Wright decided to radically change his approach to the film and made a creative U-turn.
Instead of filming in St Petersburg and Moscow, he would make 90 percent of his film at Shepperton.
Instead of embarking on “yet another period adaptation of a classic novel”, as producer Paul Webster puts it, Wright would make his version set to the backdrop of a dilapidated Russian theatre – albeit heightened magical theatre it is, of course, a huge gamble –a daring creative risk to forgo realism and embark on a unique visionary interpretation of one of the best-loved novels of all time.
“We had spoken about the idea of doing Anna Karenina some years ago, probably when we were doing Atonement and after The Soloist, which I made in America, and Hanna, which was in Europe.
“I wanted to make another film with Keira, a film that would work with an almost entirely British cast and crew.
“So I suggested the idea to Tim Bevan (producer) and I said that the only way we could do this was if we had Tom Stoppard to write the screenplay and I went to meet Tom and thankfully he said ‘yes’.”
Wright’s decision to abandon plans for a traditional approach to the film came as a surprise to his colleagues, not least to Sir Tom Stoppard who had already written the screenplay when the director delivered the news to him.
“I knew nothing about this change of plan until he showed up at my flat one day with a big folder and had storyboarded pretty much a way of doing most of the film taking place in a dilapidated 19th-century Russian theatre,” says Stoppard.
“And just to be clear about that he didn’t mean that it would be taking place just on the stage, he meant taking place all over the building – in the fly tower and in the lobby (of the theatre) and so forth. And my reaction was that I was obviously taken aback because when writing the screenplay I had in my mind something that I suppose you would call more conventional.
“On the other hand, I found his excitement about the whole thing infectious and we talked quite a lot about how this would work. And we thought that it would work very well on the understanding that the actors, the characters, wouldn’t be aware of anything other than their own reality.”
For Wright, the plan to use a run-down theatre as the central setting slowly formed as he visited possible locations, in Russia and the UK, in pre-production.
“I’d been reading various books on Russian society in the 19th century and in particular, Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes, that describes Russian society as living their lives as if they were on a stage.
“They are all constantly performing their roles in lots of different ways – for instance, they were always kind of pretending that they were French, speaking in French, and Russian society suffered from a bit of an identity crisis at that time so they took the persona of the French and tried to emulate them. So there was a kind of artificiality in their behaviour.
“But it also seemed to speak to the emotional story of the characters in the sense that they – and indeed we – play roles. When I’m on set I play the role of a director, Anna Karenina is playing the role of a dutiful wife and a lover. So the idea of using the theatre to tell our story seemed to fit.”
Wright’s radical approach brought a new set of logistical headaches – instead of taking a key crew and actors to work for weeks on location in Russia the vast majority of the film would be made on three sound stages at Shepperton Studios with a brief, four-day, visit to Russia where some exterior scenes are shown on real locations.
Sound stage C at Shepperton became the hub of the film. The cavernous space was turned into the theatre, which, in turn, would have different sets – restaurants, a council chamber, a racetrack, ice rink – constructed within it.
“We’re not making a play and it’s not a theatre in the strictest sense of the word. It’s a grand theatrical space within which we stage the majority of our action and all the elements – interior and exterior – are connected in a theatrical way. The best way of describing it is like a kind of magic theatre,” says producer Paul Webster.
Production designer Sarah Greenwood, who is a key collaborator with Wright, admits that the 11th hour change of plan was daunting.
“It was turning the whole ship around just 12 weeks before we started filming,” she says.
“The logistics were crippling, but everyone could see that if we could pull off Joe’s big idea it would be amazing.” – Universal Pictures