In Darkest Hour, Joe Wright recreates the short time during which Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), recently elected Britain’s prime minister, must rally his nation against the eminent threat of Nazi forces who have taken over Europe and stand ready to invade England. To bring to the screen the terrifying reality of this turning point in history, Wright assembled a top-notch team, including costume designer Jacqueline Durran. Having already dressed five of Wright’s films, the Academy Award-winning artist knew exactly how to bring her talent for matching individual character with historical accuracy to this drama.
As we celebrate Focus Features’ 15th anniversary, we look back on Durran’s legacy in four remarkable films, from weaving history into grand pageants like Pride & Prejudice and Anna Karenina to clothing cloak-and-dagger films like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
The emotional thread of Pride & Prejudice
Jacqueline Durran received her first Academy Award nomination for her costumes for Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice. While this was the first film the two collaborated on, the pair had a fast meeting of the minds about how to bring a new vision to this classic Jane Austen tale. First, they shifted the film’s period to when the book was written, allowing as Variety notes, “a softer, late 18th-century look rather than a stiffer early 19th-century one." And the filmmakers focused on the realism of the tale. Durran explains to People Magazine, “I thought about how a local dressmaker would’ve made something, the fabrics she would’ve had…what a provincial family would do with their clothes.” Durran’s attention to detail helped infuse this classic story with new vitality. For Salon, “As historically authentic-looking as Pride & Prejudice is, it has far more invested in emotional authenticity.”
Creating the unforgettable look of Atonement
While Durran was nominated for her second Academy Award for her sumptuous costumes in Joe Wright’s Atonement, a more distinctive honor came the next year when the emerald dress she created for Keira Knightley’s character topped a poll conducted by Sky Movies and In Style Magazine for the best film costume of all time. But for Durran that dress, along with all the swim suits and tuxes, then later soldiers' uniforms and nurses garb, she designed were just part of her job to bring the film’s three time periods alive. “I made it, then I put it on Keira Knightley,” she modestly tells Stylist. “If I’ve done my job properly, it suits Keira.” Durran’s real achievement here in many ways was not making a dress that stood out, but creating costumes that blended so perfectly into the style of the film. Rolling Stone notes that Atonement’s achievement is created “in tandem with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, editor Paul Tothill, production designer Sarah Greenwood and costume designer Jacqueline Durran — awards, please, for all of them."
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’s secret language of suits
Durran moved from period glamor to the buttoned-down world of London spies in her costumes for Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Working with the film’s star Gary Oldman, Durran meticulously crafted George Smiley’s look to capture both his personal history and his use of fashion as a tool of espionage. As The Guardian points out, “Gary Oldman's somber George Smiley wears a dark-grey three-piece in the style of the 1950s and a plain Aquascutum raincoat from the same era,” a look that had not changed for several decades. The clothes are also, as Durran tells GQ, “aware of how coded men's costuming is for that stratum of society, at that time,” especially if you happened to be a spy. Her ingenious weaving together of cold war subterfuge and Savile Row tailoring earned her a BAFTA nomination.
Anna Karenina’s modern imperial fashion
To showcase the opulent world of Wright’s Anna Karenina, Durran turned not to Imperial Russia, but fifties Paris. During their first meeting, Durran tells Vanity Fair, Wright “talked about how he wanted to pare down the costumes...to their silhouette...to look at 50s couture and say, ‘Take this kind of style and apply it to the 1870s silhouette.’” Studying the iconic lines of French couture designers like Christian Dior and Balenciaga, Durran created costumes that feel at once at home in Imperial Russia and refreshingly contemporary. “It is impossible not to be captivated by the visual artistry that infuses the film,” notes the Los Angeles Times, adding the “costumes by Jacqueline Durran are so superlative that they emerge as characters in their own right.” For her extraordinary work, Durran was awarded an Academy Award for Best Costume Design.