English production designer Sarah Greenwood faced considerable challenges on Atonement, for which she’s been nominated for an Oscar, along with set decorator Katie Spencer. That’s because the film—about a romantic relationship that overcomes class differences but winds up destroyed by a malicious lie—takes place in three distinct time periods spanning half a century.
It begins in 1935 at an English country estate. Next, is a World War II sequence that in itself encompasses battle scenes and life in war-ravaged London. It ends in a contemporary television studio.
The estate segment was shot on location at Stokesay Court, a grand Victorian house in Shropshire, England, built in 1889. Greenwood and Spenser researched 1930s interior to accurately create the inside of the house. Director Joe Wright wanted “everything to seem fecund and ripe, almost to the point of rottenness,” says the production designer. “English country life was quite decadent during that period,” says Greenwood. “That world was on the cusp of its demise, but the people didn’t know it.”
A highlight of the war episode takes place in an immaculate hospital interior, built as a set at Shepperton studios. “We didn’t want to show the blood and guts of war,” notes the production designer. “Instead the badly wounded soldiers are brought into the pristine environment of the hospital, where you saw the results of the supposed victory at Dunkirk, which wasn’t a victory at all but a complete fiasco.”
The scene at Dunkirk is the visual masterstroke of the film, an enormous mise en scene with a thousand extras as stunned soldiers on a beach where a battleship is stranded in the outgoing tide. Greenwood scoured northeast England and came upon Redcar, a small town with a seaside setting that approximated the look of Dunkirk during World War II. “It had a massive hotel, and a shallow beach like Dunkirk,” she says. Putting the boat in place was tough. “We were going to sail it in, but couldn’t because there were too many rocks. So we ended by bringing it in by roads in four parts and had the biggest crane in the world put it on the beach.”
The final part of the film is a television interview that was filmed in a BBC studio. Having done the set for The Late Show, a former hit on English television, Greenwood used that experience to fine tune even that minimal setting.
Atonement was Greenwood’s fifth collaboration with Wright, preceded by Pride & Prejudice for which she also received an Oscar nomination.
– Jack Egan
Oscar, Best Achievement in Art Direction, shared with set decorator Katie Spencer, Atonement
Art Directors Guild Award, Excellence in Production Design for a Period Feature, Atonement
BAFTA Film Award, Best Production Design, shared with set decorator Katie Spencer, Atonement
Oscar, Best Achievement in Art Direction, shared with set decorator Katie Spencer, Pride & Prejudice.
Written by Jack Egan