I was prepared to hate the costumes in Atonement. That green gown was everywhere last fall -- in magazines, in the trailers for the movie. Around the time of the Academy Awards it was auctioned off on eBay. The phrase for it was "eye-catching," and the color was what made it so. The color has been ubiquitous this spring. I have two tops in that color and I could have at least three more from L.A.M.B., not to mention dresses by Phillip Lim, Geren Ford, Zac Posen, and Isaac Mizrahi. But when the trailers for the movie started appearing and when Kiera Knightly appeared in Vogue, the color made the gown so obvious it was kitchy. It seemed to have been constructed of a green so saturated it that the message it sent was vulgar: "If you didn't know that Kiera Knightly was supposed to be the object of your gaze in this film, this costume has been made to alert you." I was sure that the film was nominated for best costumes at the Oscars because of the green gown, while at the same time not having a chance to win the big award because of it. It was gimmicky, and the result of having put it in all the publicity shots was that the best costume in the whole picture was there on display for everyone to see -- it didn't require context. I got the feeling that we were seeing the equivalent of the dress that Scarlett wears to Ashley's birthday party. After that image, the deluge.
That was all before I had seen Atonement. I have to admit that I didn't rush out to see it because it got an unfavorable review from Anthony Lane, whose reviews I fell in love with many years ago but have not loved recently, though I have also refused to admit that the lustre has worn off the affair. I saw Atonement on DVD recently and now I know that the relationship is over. (I should have known it when he wrote a bad review of Marie Antoinette, but I really wanted to believe that he was the same writer whose words I met lo those many years ago). Atonement is a good movie. The use of point of view is fascinating, and we are left to wonder exactly what about the story is "real" and which parts belong to Briony's imagination. At one point Cecelia even calls her an "unreliable witness." Because of its unreliability, the narrative makes the kitsch in the film bearable. In fact, in the context of unreliability the kitsch even deepens the film.
Before I go on I should point out that the film relies on its kitsch for its market value. Movie goers fall for high-drama romance in which the lovers share a passion that can endure despite false accusations, prison, and the Blitz. I know that I am a sucker for such stories. If you didn't want to pay attention, you could just sit back and enjoy Knightly and James McAvoy suffering beautifully and feel entirely satisfied even as you put the movie back in Red Box. The romance is part of the hook, like the green gown. If we wanted to, we could look at the gown in the context of the romance -- a woman wanting to look her best for the man she has just admitted she is in love with. We can look at the gown that way or we can look at everything else going on in the movie. We can enjoy the certainty of the love story or the ambiguities of the plot. Or, if you wanted to, you could allow them both to entertain you at once.
As it is, we don't know what parts of the film happen in "real life" and which happen in Briony's imagination. There are parts of the story that seem to be "true," the false accusations sending Robbie to jail, the love between Robbie and Cecelia, the identity of the real "rapist." (I put that last word into quotes because the film leads us to believe that Lola may not have been raped at all). So what Cecelia wears is suspect, as well: if green is the color of jealousy, it follows that in Briony's imagination she would be in green, as (in Briony's head) she is Briony's rival for Robbie's attention.
The green gown aside, the costumes unify the film's various time periods. The young Briony's dresses foreshadow her nurse's uniform. Both her uniform and the dresses she wears as a young girl are cut half-way up the calf and in such a way that they bellow out behind her as she walks. She has the same silhouette as an 18 year old that she has a s a 13 year old. The way the costumes are filmed are equally as important as the cut. The sequences that introduce Briony as first a character and later as an 18 year old are highly choreographed, as if to stress that this is a girl who lives in her imagination, and through it is used to choreographing her reality. The actresses who play Briony move sharply as they turn left and right, as they navigate a country house or march in line with other nurses. This is not to say that other scenes in the film are not highly choreographed -- they are -- it is simply that Briony choreographs herself, while others are moved into place by her memory or fancy.