Design of History: Sarah Greenwood's Atonement

To bring a historical novel to life, production designer Sarah Greenwood goes beyond finding the perfect decoration.

In period films, production design must not only capture the drama's historical detail; it must find a way to make curtain rods and floral prints speak of social unrest and economic instability, of personal longing and psychological burdens. For production designer Sarah Greenwood, who has worked with director Joe Wright on five projects so far, including his latest, Atonement, these challenges were compounded because of the narrative's epic scope as well as its complex intertwining of multiple narrative voices.

Greenwood admits, "From a design point of view, Atonement was a fantastic challenge. [I got] the chance to recreate pre-war England, the war, and London after the war, a time when the upper class was hanging on to its privilege by their finger nails." Like the Ian McEwan novel on which it is based, the film is divided into three separate parts each defined by a different perspective, historical period, and location. And for each of these sections, Greenwood had to create design palettes that would properly capture the physical reality of the story's locations while hinting at the ways in which memory and emotion can color our vision of the past.

Part One: The Tallis Estate

The film begins at the Tallis Estate, a place that McEwan described in less than glowing terms:

"[B]arely forty years old, bright orange brick, squat, lead-paned baronial Gothic, to be condemned one day in an article by Pevsner, or one of his team, as a tragedy of wasted chances, and by a young writer of the modern school as "charmless to a fault." An Adam-style house had stood here until destroyed by fire in the late 1880s. What remained was the artificial lake and island with its two stone bridges supporting the driveway, and, by the water's edge, a crumbling stuccoed temple. Cecilia's grandfather, who grew up over an ironmonger's shop and made the family fortune with a series of patents on padlocks, bolts, latches and hasps, had imposed non the new house his taste for all things solid, secure and functional."

For Greenwood, there were two objectives in the design of the Tallis estate: first to capture the class aspirations and limitations of the characters and second, to set the physical and emotional climate of the scene.

Finding a house that would match the McEwan's description was no easy task. Originally Greenwood considered Tyntesfield, an overzealous Victorian mansion near Bristol. A famous estate, Tyntesfield also displayed the architectural excesses necessary to define the Tallis family line. But for various reasons Tyntesfield had to be abandoned as a location idea. In researching other estates in Country Life, a weekly British magazine with page upon page of perfectly charming country estates, Greenwood came across Stokesay Court in Shropshire. The house had stood abandoned since its contents had been sold off in the 1990s. Greenwood remembers, "Joe [Wright] and I went up to see it on a cold bleak winter evening. There was a giant plastic elephant covered in Thai armor and the gardens were really grim. I thought maybe we could use the gardens here and another building elsewhere for the interiors. But later, when our other possible locale fell though, Joe insisted that we return. It was then I saw then it could be perfect and that we could shoot both the estate and the gardens in one location." Indeed the famous fountain, which serves as a central point connecting the interior of the house to the outside, existed in a way on the estate. All they needed to do is repair and add the storied centerpiece sculpture.

Much like the fictional Tallis Estate, Stokesay Court was built in the late 19th century — 1889 to be exact — by glove manufacturer John Derby-Allcroft. And like the Tallis' place, Stokesay's garden was part of an earlier estate, the Stokesay Castle. But, more importantly, the house was capable of revealing at a single glance the class and social aspirations of its owners. In the novel, Greenwood points out, "the family is second or third generation new money, so their home is not a historically beautiful or important house; it is mass produced, a reinterpretation of a classic form. The family had enough money but not that much style."


In addition to the architectural setting, the location had to match, quite literally, the climate of the times. The first section of Atonement is set on of the hottest day of summer. "We felt very strongly," explains Greenwood, "that we wanted to get that height of summer feel, right on the edge of falling into rottenness, so one of the colors that is very prevalent in the first part is green, which is something that I usually shy away from." Walls were painted green, and the color accented all areas of the manor. Even the kitchen got a coat of "poisonous" acid green, the exact bracing tint that Greenwood had witnessed (much to her horror) at the kitchen in Tyntesfield. Outside the feeling of summer torpor was rendered through a variety of effects. Much was suggested by the sound design's incessant insect sounds. Elsewhere the heat was planted as both an idea and landscaping. Gardeners added new flowers, especially very full camellias, and shrubbery throughout, all just on the edge of maturity, to evoke that sense of a summer day where every thing is full, ripe, and about to be forever lost. "It's a exquisite moment, really," comments Greenwood, "but one that frightened terribly the aristocracy. The mother says at one moment that they used to lock up the girls on night like this since the heat brought out the worst in them."

In decorating the house, Greenwood looked to the classic Colefax and Fowler style, a mix of chintz, antiques and floral patterns made famous by the decorators Sibyl Colefax and John Fowler in the '30s. As Greenwood points out, "It was a reinterpretation of aristocratic style for the middle class, but it was still middle class." Greenwood also loved the natural rhythm of the house's front rooms. "When you saw them at the beginning of the day," she says, "they were all light, but as it got later, the rooms got very dark." The building's natural lighting became a perfect metaphor for the psychological world inhabited by its characters.

Elsewhere on the property was a groundskeeper's building that became Robbie's cottage. His home was dressed to reveal his mother's hard work and his intellectual passion. As Greenwood points out, "There is a drawing board with designs, and his interests are eclectic and varied." Set in dark greens and brown, the cottage maintains a certain sober earthiness as well as a sense of history. Interestingly the cottage, which was originally part of Stokesay Castle, is actually much older than Stokesay Court.

Part Two: Dunkirk

The primary locale for the second part of the novel was the beach at Dunkirk in June 1940. While essential to the winning of the war, the battle and subsequent evacuation of Dunkirk was not about triumph and victory but about survival and escape. After Hitler ordered the invasion of France in May 1940, French, Belgian and British troops attempted to hold back the German surge. Caught in a pincer advance from the south and west, the allied forces were pushed to the Northern French seaside town of Dunkirk (near the Belgian border). As the Germans waited for their tank squadrons to regroup, Churchill ordered a massive evacuation of troops. Ships, tankers, yachts, and boats of all shapes hurried to the port and beaches of Dunkirk to rescue the defeated troops. Over 340,000 men (including well over 100,000 French soldiers) were picked up and brought to England in order to fight another day.

To find a location that could double for Dunkirk during the war, Greenwood and her team needed a resort town whose beachfront architecture reflected that Northern French seaside. "I felt sure there was something on the East coast of England," explains Greenwood, "So we just drove for days until we found the town of Redcar." Located on the Northeast coast, Redcar, a favorite tourist destination ever since a railroad connected it to London in 1825, provided a perfect seaside silhouette for Dunkirk.

Greenwood had visited the real Dunkirk to get a better idea of what she was looking for. There she found an industrial section but also, still, a quaint seaside town. To understand the actual scene, Greenwood studied historical records — black-and-white film footage, first-hand and written accounts, even color photographs taken by the Germans after they'd taken the beach. Material was gathered from all over — from family records, archives, public records, and the Imperial War Museum. Using these images, as well as drawings of what the beachfront buildings should look like, the production department collaged together different perspectives from the beach. These collages not only gave a sense of what the filmmakers would be shooting but provided a map for how objects would relate to each other. Some — the ship, the upturned cars, the bandstand — were historical, and others, such as the Ferris wheel, were imagined. In fact, according to Greenwood, the idea for the amusement park ride came about as an off-the-cuff comment on the way to a party, and the actual wood-and-metal apparatus was spied by accident one afternoon off the M5. The barge, which became a centerpiece in many photos of the actual battle, became a nightmare to create. "We thought we could just beach it," remembers Greenwood, "but we had to break it up into four parts and carry it overland at a horrendous cost. But we had to have the barge."


With the objects in place, creating the sense of war was a different challenge altogether. Even before Homer, artists have tried to capture war — its violence, its horror, its heroics, its excitement. Some have stressed its tedium, others its unquenchable violence, still others the clarity of purpose it instills. Greenwood's vision of war was one of utter desperation, a bewildering circus of frustration, confusion and death. "We went to the War Museum," she recounts. "It was all about the desperation and despair of war. Its utter futility." While she referenced war photography for details, Greenwood also turned back to classic images of despair, like the Hell panel of Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights. For a color palette, Greenwood did not rely on the traditional fatigue greens and dingy browns of war, but pulled out the gaudy, tarnished hues of a seaside resort. She looked to the pastel range of the seaside house in Dunkirk, but wanted them pushed. "I went with pinks and yellows but more ghastly, like Neapolitan ice cream gone mad," she says. "And the scene being shot in half sunlight gave everything an even more ghostly appearance."

Part Three: St. Thomas' Hospital

In the third part of Atonement, Briony is a nurse in training at St. Thomas' Hospital in London. The rooms and halls maintain a formality as stiff as the starch in its nurses' uniforms. While there is little killing on the beach at Dunkirk, the horror of the war is subsequently revealed at the hospital. For example, in terms of color, the rooms are drained of red until its is finally introduced in the form of blood. And then the shock is as primal as the color itself.

None of the wartime hospitals exist as they did at during the war. So to bring St. Thomas back to life the production team had to build it anew on the sound stages of Shepperton Studios. Greenwood used archival photos to match the shape and symmetry of the halls and large hospital room. While she could get all the architectural details, especially the attention to symmetry and order, most important was to capture the grand scope of the place. While expensive, Greenwood insisted that they keep the hospital's original proportions. "How else to show the carnage of war?" she remarks.

At every stage of production, the questions of how to show the carnage of war, the aftereffect of deceit, the pain of guilt, or the hope for atonement, were the questions that focus the film's production design. It is not so simple as the perfect vase and the right wainscoting. Although coincidently, it is a vase after all that sets everything in motion — a gaudy, expensive vase inherited from Mr. Tallis' brother that Robbie and Cecilia fight over, break by the garden's fountain, and whose recovery Briony watches and mistakes as an act of erotic submission — a vase, which once broken, can never be repaired.