Making the Scene: 5 Films that Showcase Sarah Greenwood’s Visionary Talent

From Pride & Prejudice to Darkest Hour, production design that staggers the imagination

In Darkest Hour, Joe Wright brings to the screen one of the most remarkable periods in modern history––the time during which Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) inspired a nation to rise up to fight the imminent Nazi threat. To bring this world into focus, Wright brought on his longtime collaborator, production designer Sarah Greenwood, to recreate key locations. From the majestic Buckingham Palace to the warren of underground offices where the planning against the Germans took place, Greenwood made each locale an integral part of the story. For Screen Daily, “Sarah Greenwood’s production design ensures that the crepuscular Cabinet War Rooms are as much a character in this story as any of the corpulent, besuited men who debate the future of the country.”

In celebration of Focus' 15th anniversary—and to get ready for Darkest Hour—we revisit the amazing Academy Award-nominated work that Greenwood has brought to five Focus films, be it recreating Regency England or 19th century Imperial Russian or contemporary Berlin.

Official trailer for Darkest Hour

Keeping things real in Pride & Prejudice

With Pride & Prejudice, director Joe Wright moved beyond the elegant decors that characterize so many period films to find the real people and places of the time. “We gave them dated furnishings, flaky and aged paint treatment, creating a look of not having been kept up, almost neglect but mutely loved and mended,” explains Greenwood. Greenwood’s design highlights the emotional difference between the Bennets’ warm, homey style and the chilly luxury of Mr. Bingley’s or Lady Catherine De Bourgh’s estates. Indeed each of the film’s locations was painstakingly picked to reflect the characters who live there. As such, “Scenes barely sketched in Austen’s dialogue-heavy, description-light prose leap fully detailed onto the screen, thanks to Sarah Greenwood’s terrific production design” notes Variety. For her remarkable work, Greenwood, along with set decorator Katie Spencer, were nominated for an Academy Award.

Get Pride & Prejudice now on iTunes or at Amazon.

Greenwood details the Bennets' cozy home.

Making three worlds one in Atonement

In Atonement, Greenwood’s second film with director Joe Wright, her work was tripled, having to create sets for the film’s multiple time periods. “From a design point of view, Atonement was a fantastic challenge,” Greenwood acknowledges. “[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." Be it the epic task of recreating Dunkirk before the evacuation or the attention to detail in getting every object just right in austere post-war Britain, Greenwood brings a sense of drama to her sets. The first section, in which the lives of Robbie (James McAvoy), Cecilia (Keira Knightley), and Briony (Saoirse Ronan) first become entangled, makes this most apparent. “From the faded chintz that drapes nearly every surface in the Tallis house to Cecilia's clinging green chemise … every object and movement seems both spontaneous and drenched with meaning,” notes The Washington Post. Greenwood was honored with her second Academy Award nomination for Atonement

Get Atonement now on iTunes or at Amazon.

The lived-in world of luxury in Atonement

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day showcases an Art Deco fantasy

For Bharat Nalluri’s comic lark, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Greenwood conjured up the giddy excess of 30s England, as well as the economic depression that lingered just outside affluent London’s Art Deco doors. For Greenwood, “This movie, itself a fairy tale that is touching and witty, was a designer's dream project." When the dowdy unemployed governess Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) teams up with the stylish singer Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams) to find love, their mad dashes about London takes the two from fancy flats to elegant nightclubs to swanky fashion shows. For the Chicago Tribune, her “vision of Noel Coward-era Mayfair is an Art Deco fairy tale.” 

Get Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day now on iTunes or at Amazon.

Sarah Greenwood creates an Art Deco fairy tale in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

The wild, wide world of Hanna

Reuniting with Joe Wright for the action drama Hanna, Greenwood found herself in a strange new world. This story of a young assassin (Saorise Ronan) raised by her ex-CIA agent father (Eric Bana) spans the globe, from a fairy-tale cabin the arctic wilds to a CIA prison buried deep in a Moroccan desert to a decaying amusement park on the outskirts of Berlin. Throughout Greenwood subtly weaves together the story’s fantastic elements with the characters’ gritty real-world experience. When it came time to build a storybook log cabin in Bavaria, “Sarah drew a very fine line in terms of not letting it become too fairytale, keeping it grounded in some sort of reality,” explains Wright. Indeed as Variety notes, “Sarah Greenwood’s production design meshes brilliantly with the fine location work done in Finland, Germany and Morocco.”  

Get Hanna now on iTunes or at Amazon.

Hanna spans the world from a log cabin to the outskirts of Berlin in this featurette.

All the world’s a stage in Anna Karenina

While busy in preproduction on Anna Karenina, Greenwood got a call from director Joe Wright telling her that instead of recreating Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel on locations in England and Russia, they were going to set their story almost entirely in a dilapidated theater on a soundstage. “This is a society on its way out, decaying, heading toward unrest under the rule of aristocracy,” Greenwood tells the Los Angeles Times. “They did like their gold leaf, so gilding was important to have. But everything within is fake, paper-thin.” In addition to creating opulent, overwhelming salons and sitting rooms, Greenwood ingeniously constructed an ice-skating rink, a racetrack, and even a theater inside the massive theater. Greenwood’s ingenious designs gave her theater an uncanny sense of endless space and possibility. “The film itself is the very opposite of stagy," writes The New York Times. "The camera hurtles through the scenery as if in hungry pursuit; the lush colors of the upholstery and the costumes pulsate with feeling,”  She received her fourth Academy Award nomination for Anna Karenina

Get Anna Karenina now on iTunes or at Amazon.

The featurette "Anna Karenina: Creating the Extraordinary World"

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