The Oscars have come and gone once more, and so we are faced once again with the task of analyzing and reviewing this year's nominees (and eventually the winner) for Best Achievement in Costume Design.
The first of these nominees which we'll be covering in this year's retrospective, will be Joe Wright's latest period drama; Darkest Hour, a movie that in the end leaves us quite unimpressed by the effort.
It's a paint by numbers movie that even though it boasts of an outstanding photography, camera work, and incredible acting talent, still manages to waste it all into a boring, run-of-the-mill script that has nothing new to offer.
Darkest Hour focusses on the one month span between Churchill becoming Prime Minister and his famous "never surrender" speech that marked the decisive moment in which Great Britain decided to confront Germany and Hitler head-on.
And while it sounds interesting enough on paper, it doesn't help that it feels that between The King's Speech, The Crown, and Dunkirk, all three of which have been produced within these past seven years, we've already covered the period and the character quite enough. Long story short; we've seen this movie already.
That's not to say that there is nothing of worth in the movie. Here, Gary Oldman's performance really shines brightly. But when has Gary Oldman not been fantastic in a movie? Also, the real talent that allows Oldman to shine, in this case, is the incredible makeup and hair team, who managed to transform him into a carbon copy of Churchill.
But, to truly achieve that transformation, the Costume Department also had to play an essential role in turning Oldman into one of the most iconic political figures in the 20th century.
TAILORING THE MAN
The costume design for the movie was created by Jacqueline Durran, a long time Joe Wright collaborator. She is the mind behind the designs of Pride and Prejudice (2005), Atonement (2007), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), Anna Karenina (2012, which earned her her first Costume Design Academy Award), Mr. Turner (2014), Macbeth (2015), Pan (2015) and Beauty and the Beast (2017), for which she garnered a double nomination this year.
The main idea behind the look for Darkest Hour is to create a seamless illusion that what you are seeing on screen is real: to transport the viewers to may 1940. And that directly translates into the costume design department, which had to put all its effort into seamlessly recreating the period and the real-life style of Churchill and the people around him.
Because of this, the costume design is meant to be as invisible as possible, so to avoid calling attention to itself and distract from the story, which was a particularly challenging task considering that this character and this period's look are very well documented and present in everyone's mind.
In all his movies, Joe sets out his direction at the beginning so we know what we are aiming for. In Pride & Prejudice, I knew that we were aiming for a provincial country style. Here I knew that we were aiming to make it look as real as we could. - Jacqueline Durran, Costume Designer -
THE POLITICAL DANDY
Winston Churchill, played by the always mesmerizing Gary Oldman, is the undisputed protagonist of Darkest Hour. He and his well-documented quirks stand at the center of the drama as the odds keep mounting against him.
It is precisely because he is such a well-documented figure and a highly iconic one at that, that having him feel and look like the real Churchill became the real challenge of the Costume Design.
In the past, with Joe, we’ve done really quite big stylization, like Anna Karenina it was not a realistic interpretation. And I think coming to this subject matter, you couldn’t really stylize it, it’d be crazy. If you suddenly made Churchill not look like Churchill, there’d be no point. And so much of Gary’s interpretation is looking like Churchill, we were doing a replication of Churchill as far as we could.
- Jacqueline Durran, Costume Designer -
But, whilst this approach might seem easier than building a look for a character from scratch, replication is much harder than it sounds. Particularly in Churchill's case, because he was very specific about his clothes, which weren't only highly detailed: they were also the best of the best.
He was Edwardian. In many ways, he was almost a dandy. He was obsessed with the details of his clothing. He is very much of his generation in that way. They knew exactly what they were wearing. They have the polka-dotted tie; they have the right shirt collar—everything is there and it doesn’t need to be thought about anymore. It is as if he got all the details of his clothing just right, and then moved on, completely confident about what he was wearing. I have a picture of him from the 1920s and one from the 1940s, and he is wearing exactly the same thing.
- Jacqueline Durran, Costume Designer -
That obsession with specific yet unchangeable details means that the collective image the public has of Churchill is extremely specific and unmovable, which, in turn, makes recreation harder and trickier than it already is.
Because of it, the best possible option was to go directly to the source and get his clothes straight from his tailors.
Churchill is such an important character in our history that you can pretty much find all the people who made his clothes. [...] While several people made his suits, we chose Henry Poole & Co. Tailors for the movie. And we went to Turnbull & Asser to make his shirts and bow ties and Lock & Co. Hatters for his hats. We worked with them to make the items as close to what Churchill wore as they could.
- Jacqueline Durran, Costume Designer -
This "shortcut" allowed the Costume Designer to work with the right details (the right patterns, textures, colors, and style; the same one that the real Churchill would have actually worn) and then take those and interpret them back as closely as possible into the actor's costumes.
That interpretation, amongst other things, consisted of actually getting the silhouette of the body right. A rather tricky task that had to be done in close partnership with the body sculptures who did the body suit for Oldman.
A bodysuit (or a fat suit as it is colloquially known) is easy to get wrong and really hard to make look realistic. And that difficulty also translates to dressing a body suit.
Creating the right silhouette for a character is always an essential aspect of the Costume Design, but in this case, it was particularly tricky, as it didn't match the real-life silhouette of the actor and therefore had to be built from scratch.
It was difficult to work out the sweep of the back and the rounding of his shoulder and neck––and how the prosthetic goes into that. We needed to get the angle and height of the stomach just right so he has a realistic belly, and doesn't look pregnant. Joe Wright wanted the shape to be one of those bodies with a big belly and quite skinny legs––so his silhouette would taper as it came down, rather than being wide and out. - Jacqueline Durran, Costume Designer -
All of that incredible attention to detail is, what in the end, managed to become the selling point of the movie: Oldman wasn't playing Churchill, he was Churchill.
But, as important as that was, there is, after all, a reason why the movie chose to introduce him in a more private setting and wearing a nightgown; a deeply intimate garment for an intimate setting, and something that neither the Costume Designer nor the audience would have any real reference for.
This decision is, though easy to overlook, the most relevant costuming decision in the whole movie. It established the notion that throughout the movie we'll get to "undress" Churchill; to see his more private side. It's a promise to show us the man behind the myth.
Last but not least, there is the undeniable fact that his Costume Design doesn't provide any narrative arc. His costumes do not evolve throughout the movie to reflect changes in the character; they are completely and unquestionably static. This, in the end, only serves to underline one of the glaring missteps of the movie: Churchill doesn't evolve or has any character arc throughout the movie.
The problem with creating a narrative arc with Churchill is that the time period of the film is too short. We didn't think so much about a change with him as capturing the different ways he looked at that moment.- Jacqueline Durran, Costume Designer -
That, for me, is the biggest flaw both in the movie itself and in the costume design; statism in characters' makes for both a boring watch and a boring costume design.
THE FAITHFULL SECRETARY
Standing next to Churchill in this story are a handful of characters that serve as little more than an emotional crutch for him. Yet is in these characters where the Costume Design manages to showcase the most interesting design concepts in the whole film.
Such is the case with the character of Elizabeth Layton, the real-life wartime secretary of Churchill played by the new period-darling: Lily James. It's in her character where we actually get to see the closest thing this movie can offer to a character arc: from naive, impressionable girl, to hardened and efficient secretary. And that is portrayed mainly through her costume.
Her arc mainly consists of her getting used to the demands of her job. She is introduced to us on her first day as Churchill's secretary, where she shows up wearing a flowery Sunday dress that feels quite inappropriate for the job.
But as the movie progresses, she slowly shifts towards more comfortable and utilitarian clothes: knitwear and blouses that she often reuses and wears for days on end, thus visually showing that she's probably keeping the same crazy working hours as Churchill: she is no less resilient.
This small visual arc serves to show the audience that she has, in effect, truly grown into her role.
There was a tiny arc for Elizabeth Layton. On her first day at work with Churchill, she misjudges how to behave as his secretary by wearing her Sunday best. By the time she’s working in the war room, she’s in a green suit that fits the job. Many of the clothes in the second half were dictated by the fact that as Churchill’s secretary, she often slept in the war room. So there was more knitwear and less formal dresses, blouses and skirts. - Jacqueline Durran, Costume Designer -
Aside from that, her costume design also adheres to the same historical realism that was set as the baseline standard for the movie: her clothes are impeccably period-accurate and are a very faithful representation of what a young British woman would have worn during that time.
THE UNWILLING KING
King George VI is delegated here to a small yet crucial role in the story: first doubting Churchill and his ability to lead, only to end up fervently supporting him.
And because he has so little screen time, the character gets distilled to one single basic idea: duty. An idea which is mainly transmitted to the audience through the costume design.
That is why his character is first introduced wearing his naval uniform, and why he almost always appears wearing that same uniform. It all revolves around the idea of duty for him.
He isn't a king because he wants to. He took the office out of duty, and he keeps it (despite his stutter and how hard it is for him) out of duty towards his country.
The thing with this movie is that we had the photographs of the king at that time in his naval uniform in different functions, and we just thought it was something we wanted to bring to this, to see the king in his uniform. Thematically it’s about how he feels patriotic to his country, how he feels about being a king at this time, duty and service. And that’s what we wanted to bring out in his interpretation. - Jacqueline Durran, Costume Designer -
The last of these supporting characters, and the only member of the Churchill family to be portrayed in the film, is the relentlessly eccentric Clementine Churchill; his wife and companion.
Clementine, as much a public figure back in the day as her husband, was a notoriously eccentric dresser, and that certainly posed a problem design-wise considering the sober tone the movie aimed for.
Because of that, the Costume Department was forced to tailor make for her a look that would be reminiscent of the real Clemy, but also more toned down so that it would fit the more somber visual tone of the movie.
Our largest work of imagination was creating Clemmie’s costumes because she was known as an extravagant dresser. There’s a way in which posh English people dress that is really kind of mad. And we had to work out how to create a character that looks extravagant but didn’t look crazy. - Jacqueline Durran, Costume Designer -
To achieve this, they chose to streamline the costumes; make them stylish, but sober. And, on top of that stylish simplicity, add hats and decorations that would be reminiscent of her eccentricity.
She’d wear fur coats and these crazy hats. We fine-tuned the ‘Clemmy’ style [right, on Kristin Scott Thomas] but decided the important thing to keep was the hat. I think she had been a milliner at one point. There was always something going on in the hair. - Jacqueline Durran, Costume Designer -
Her costumes work particularly well when in contrast with the more sober '40s everyday wear worn by Layton, giving the period a wider and more rounded look.
Darkest Hour is a very predictable and formulaic biopic that continues the trend of glorifying Churchill without even daring to imply the darkest parts of his character. It is a movie with great performances at the service of a mediocre script, And whilst I am sure there is a good movie to be made out of the subject at hand, this isn't it. The movie is too afraid to truly demythologize Churchill to be interesting and, the plain truth is that this period of his life makes for poor drama. First and foremost, because it is really hard to build true tension when everybody and their grandmas know how the story ends (it's not impossible, but it's truly hard to do). But also, and not less important, because the character doesn't change. He doesn't even have to go through a change of mind. He starts the story yelling that he is right to everyone that will listen, and keeps insisting on it until everyone accepts it.
But I am starting to ramble. We are here to focus on the Costume Design and, in that regard, there has certainly been a lot of effort put into it. It is a good design if only a bit unremarkable. There is an undoubtedly huge effort put into the historical recreation and it is very noticeable that the unremarkably of the costumes is, to a certain extent, on purpose; the designer didn't want to take the attention away from the story, something that often happens in period dramas.
But in the end, despite the merits of this design, I do believe that this shouldn't have been nominated for Costume Design, particularly considering all the brilliant Costume Designs that were left out this year.
This is the first of our Oscar Retrospective 2018! Join us next time when we'll be looking at Victoria & Abdul! Meanwhile, check out last year Retrospective covering: La La Land, Jackie, Florence Foster Jenkins, Allied, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
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