Rhapsody in tweed: on the costumes of 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'

Posted by · 11:20 am · January 17th, 2012

As I discussed this morning, the few instances where the BAFTA nominations — voted on by the collected membership — part ways with the top five choices of the category’s relevant branch don’t always reflect very well on the awards’ voting system. “The Iron Lady” over “Young Adult” for Best Original Screenplay? “War Horse” over “Drive” for Best Cinematography (and over “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” for Best Visual Effects)? Jim Broadbent over, well, anyone for Best Supporting Actor? I’m unconvinced.

One area, however, where BAFTA at large did well to overrule the chapter vote was in Best Costume Design: where the costumers plumped for the lavish but rote Elizabethan rufflery of “Anonymous,” the general voters jumped forward a few centuries to nominate “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” instead. Put it down to a sweep mentality if you like — the film did score 11 nominations, after all — but that strikes me as a particularly astute pick nonetheless.

Her film résumé may be short, but Jacqueline Durran is rapidly proving herself one of the deftest costume designers in the business. Oscar-nominated for the muddied period finery of “Pride and Prejudice” and that green dress (among other items) in “Atonement,” she’s equally adept in contemporary settings — for my money, her character-defining thrift-store ensembles in Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky” were no less deserving of awards notice. In “Tinker, Tailor,” she’s hovering somewhere between those period and contemporary modes, and brings her gifts in both areas to the table.

Male-dominated films tend to get short shrift in costume awards citations, as do films set in the style-challenged heart of the 1970s — though “Milk” recently bucked the trend with a deserved but uncharacteristic Oscar nod for its unglamorous jeans-and-polyester-suits wardrobe. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is far more elegantly dressed than that film: it’s a veritable runway show of English sartorial custom, all decked out for the rain in splendidly drab autumnal hues, though I’m sure some voters will look at it and see just a bunch of guys in suits. 

Watching the film again recently, however, I was struck by just how textured and varied Durran’s work is within that seemingly narrow dress code: the suit may be a uniform of sorts for most of the film’s characters, but that doesn’t mean it can’t express an awful lot about individual personality and status.

The difference between the rigidly tailored brown three-piece (accessorized with a too-bright royal-blue tie and matching pocket square) worn by young, uptight closeted homosexual Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), the fussily overworked, over-detailed shirts and bow-ties of insecure foreigner Esterhase (Devid Dencik) and the loungier, more generously cut jackets (accessorized with ostentatiously casual desert boots) of Colin Firth’s deceptively safe-in-his-skin Bill Haydon speaks volumes about generational and political tensions, aspirations and mini-hierarchies within MI6, with Gary Oldman’s Smiley the more seasoned, more soberly plain-suited observer in the middle.

And that’s before you get to the shaggily self-admiring, tight-trousered leisurewear of Tom Hardy’s rogue agent Ricki Tarr, operating simultaneously as both mating call and mask, or the crucial costuming choice of Smiley’s signature glasses — two contrasting pairs (one delicately horn-rimmed, the other face-consumingly chunky)  that both keep the film’s shifting chronology in check and underline the transition in eras that colors the entire narrative.

It’s supremely intelligent, often slyly witty, work by Durran that also melts beautifully into the shadowy, tea-stained aesthetic of Hoyte van Hoytema’s lensing and Maria Djurkovic’s intricate production design. Both the latter achievements have been Guild-nominated — it’d be lovely to see Durran complete the set. This was all on my mind even before I saw this interesting short interview with Durran on men’s style website Kempt, in which she explains her rationale behind a number of the film’s key wardrobe pieces and reveals just how little she had to work with in terms of direct historical illustration: 

“Well, because of security, there are no actual photos of MI6 agents. So what we did was we looked at people in similar professions. We looked at politicians, and the whole range of upper-middle-class British society. Anyone who came from the same background or went to the same universities. We also had notes from a couple of people who had worked at MI6 in the “70s. They said people went for style statements, ones that were just on the edge of being acceptable in that straight English middle-class world. One of the notes we got was that one of the real-life characters wore an orange suede desert boot. So we decided to give those to Bill Haydon.”

She also explains the Steve McQueen inspiration behind Hardy’s getups, and how Oldman found his own glasses in Pasadena. Nice work all round. Fingers crossed the Guild and Academy take notice. 

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

Sign up for Instant Alerts from In Contention! 

Comments Off on Rhapsody in tweed: on the costumes of 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: HitFix · In Contention