"Anna Karenina" Costume Designer Talks With The Thread

Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina Photo Courtesy of Focus FeaturesThe story of Anna Karenina is not a happy one. Centered on adultery, jealousy, and hypocrisy (spoiler alert!) it does not have a happy ending. The newest cinematic adaptation of Tolstoy's novel, starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law, hits on all the misery of the original story, while adopting a lush, theatrical visual style. Director Joe Wright, whose work includes 2005’s "Pride & Prejudice" as well as the Oscar-winning "Atonement," has again enlisted the work of Jacqueline Durran, the multiple Academy Award-nominated and BAFTA-winning costume designer whose work on "Atonement," "Pride & Prejudice," and "Vera Drake" has earned her a spot in a pantheon of iconic costume designers like Edith Head.

Being that this is Durran's third film with Wright and Knightley, we asked Durran how involved they were in the design process. "Extremely involved,” the designer insists. “Joe Wright always has a very clear vision about the film he's about to make, and he always makes a very clear starting point to set the mood." For "Anna Karenina," the director requested that Durran concentrate specifically on silhouettes, so that each person is defined by the shape of their costume. That kind of striking visual imagery makes it especially easy for the viewer to tell the players (of which there are many) apart while also allowing for easier identification of the characters' personalities--and in some cases, their reputations.

When asked whether she prefers working on period films versus modern ones, Durran told us, "the only thing I think about is who the director is and what kind of film it's going to be. I really don't mind if it's modern or period. It's just interesting to work with directors that you like, that you find visual, [and] that you are compatible with." And compatible they are! "Anna Karenina" is another striking addition to an already stylish string of collaborative films.

"Anna Karenina" focuses mainly on the tragic romantic entanglements of the eponymous woman, but it also deals with the emotional growth and evolution of characters. As in the novel, Kitty has the most clearly linear emotional and physical evolution, so for Durran, it was important to get that across through her clothing. Durran tells us that "Kitty's costumes have a really quite clear transformation. She transforms from being somebody quite childlike to being a much more mature woman. Her costumes change quite a lot." On the other end of the spectrum, there is Anna's philandering brother Oblonsky. "He doesn't change in the film," Durran says with a good-natured chuckle, "He doesn't really evolve. Those kind of characters don't transform. [But, Anna's lover] Vronksy transforms obviously because he has to leave the military, [so] he goes from military clothes to civilian clothes."
Knightley with director Joe Wright in Durran's favorite look of the film. Photo Courtesy of Focus Features

Certainly, the most exciting costume changes in the film are Knightley's Anna. Dripping in sumptuous satin, reams upon reams of silk, and countless strands of pearls, she's the absolute picture of the aristocratic glamour girl. Durran admits, "[in] Anna's costumes there isn't really an absolute evolution--it's more kind of circular in a way. She goes back and forth between...styles. She'll wear black at different moments of significance. There are moments when we kind of play with the idea of transformation. [A] black ballgown and a white opera dress are almost mirror images of each other. Almost the same dress. And we made one in black for her triumphant moment with Vronsky and one in white for her humiliation at the opera. We thought in some ways it was an interesting mirroring of the two events."

These gorgeous gowns only further prove Durran's skill at making movie moment history. You may not have heard her name before, but you most certainly are familiar with Durran's work--specifically the famous slinky green dress in “Atonement.” When asked if she had any suspicions that it would become the iconic look it is today, Durran said, "No. No idea at all! [Director] Joe [Wright] just told me: 'You better make it good because it's really significant.' So, I felt very worried that it wouldn't be good enough and I just made it and I thought, 'Well, it's kind of OK.'" The Oscar-winner is nothing but humble. "Someone asked me before 'What makes a costume iconic?' It's really only partly the costume designer. It's really about Keira wearing it, at that moment, looking the way she does. The way that it's framed. How Joe uses it. How it fits in the story. All those things make it something. It's in an exhibition at the moment in London, and in a way the dress is never going to live up as a physical item. Because when you look at it, it's made to be at that moment in the movie, and its greatness comes from all those elements at the same time. I didn't know it would be so good--you can't know!"


Her newest work is a masterpiece, and we're certainly looking forward for the Oscars season. We're keeping our fingers crossed for a long overdue win for Jacqueline Durran. "Anna Karenina" will be in theaters everywhere November 16, 2012.

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