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Modern yesterday

'Atonement' is a period film with clothes fresh enough to have modern appeal. It's an alluring, ethereal take on aristocratic 1930s looks.

December 02, 2007|Emili Vesilind | Times Staff Writer

Re-creating period clothes is one thing. Giving them a modern glow without jarring the audience out of a particular moment in time requires a particularly nuanced hand.

British costume designer Jacqueline Durran deftly juggles both charges in "Atonement," the new film from "Pride & Prejudice" director Joe Wright.

Adapted from Ian McEwan's 2002 novel, the film chronicles an epic love story that begins in 1930s England and spans several decades. The opening scenes depict a perfect, sunny world -- full of chatty dinner parties, mid-afternoon sunbathing and sumptuously elegant clothes. It's here that Durran presents us with one of the most sublime evening gowns in ages.

The backless, emerald dress is almost a character itself -- in the film and in the novel. Durran's creation boasts a flowing hemline, delicate, twisted shoulder straps and a slit up its front high enough to make a coal miner blush. On the lithe Keira Knightley, who portrays headstrong aristocrat Cecilia Tallis, the loosely fitted silk gown is provocative but supremely graceful.

The dress is worn in the passionate love scene that ensues after Cecilia and her secret crush -- the housekeeper's son, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) -- confess their mutual amore. Its sexy front slit (which Durran would have sewn up had she been adhering to strict period guidelines) was meant to add "an element of nakedness." Had Cecilia been wearing a period dress with underpinnings, she never would have been able to wriggle free of it so fluidly.

Although the dress stays a bit more in place in the novel, Durran was faithful to the emphasis McEwan layered upon it. The author devotes three pages to Cecilia's wardrobe indecision in the minutes before the party. She dons, and discards, a black crepe de chine with jet black jewelry (too funereal) and a pink moire silk (too childish). Finally, she reaches for the slinky green gown -- what she wanted to wear all along, even if it was too dressy for a family dinner. Writes McEwan: "As she pulled it on she approved of the firm caress of the bias cut through the silk of her petticoat, and she felt sleekly impregnable, slippery and secure; it was a mermaid who rose to meet her in her own full-length mirror."

For the rest of the women's wardrobes, Durran created delicate, finely detailed pieces that embody prewar, aristocratic luxury, including a pristine white dress for Cecilia's 13-year-old sister (and romantic spoiler), Briony.

Instead of intentionally aging the clothes -- or scouring costume houses for original pieces -- Durran designed fresh incarnations of old looks. Each ensemble looks so new in fact, it might have just popped out of a hat box.

"Joe didn't want the 1930s section to be particularly realistic," Durran said. "What you're actually looking at is Briony's memory of that time, and she was a child. He wanted it to look crisp and perfect, and to relay a seductiveness. To do that, he wanted the clothes to be attractive to the modern eye."

To evoke this modern yesterday, Durran incorporated a grab-bag of wardrobe elements in each ensemble -- wide, striped neckties and spectator shoes for men, and wide-leg trousers and backless gowns for women.

For Knightley, Durran kept things airy and ethereal. "The whole idea of Cecilia's costume was that I wanted to give her the aura of a butterfly," she said, "something really light and transparent." Knightley exuded confident femininity in a diaphanous, floral-print shirt tucked into a printed silk, straight skirt. For a later scene, when she is sunbathing on a dock, Durran designed a white, Esther Williams-style swimsuit based on a piece from the 1930s. She added a swim cap from British milliner Stephen Jones (who personally fit the cap to perfectly frame Knightley's gamin face).

For the men, Durran ordered up flawless tuxedos and cotton, candy-hued suits from British bespoke tailor Timothy Everest, including a butter-yellow shirt and suit, oddly enough, worn by smarmy villain Paul Marshall (played by Benedict Cumberbatch).

"We wanted the tailoring to not look lumpy and period," said Durran, "so we took all the men to a modern tailor instead of using a costume house tailor."

The second half of the film is a contrast to the idyllic first half, following the characters through the dark years of World War II. Durran and her team re-created a variety of uniforms, including drab, cargo-pocketed British army uniforms and Briony's cape-and-bonnet nursing ensemble. The task required the re-creation of fabrics that no longer exist, including the woolly textile from which 250 military uniforms were made.

"We used a dark palette in the 1940s scenes," said Durran. "And we had a whole team of dyers to age and dirty the uniforms."

Durran, who was nominated for an Oscar for "Pride & Prejudice," is now at work in L.A. on Wright's next film, "The Soloist," a modern story about a schizophrenic, homeless musician, based on Steve Lopez's Los Angeles Times columns on cellist Nathaniel Ayers. She said "Atonement" was particularly satisfying.

"He formed very clear visual pictures for certain parts of the film," she said of Wright. "With him, it's much more than 'make clothes for the period.' "


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