Why Tenet’s Clothes Are Sketchy As Its Plot

11 September 2020
Fashion, Film, Tenet, Christopher Nolan
There's a lot to like about Christopher Nolan's mind-bending new celluloid outing Tenet, but there's also plenty to dislike, as our Style And Grooming Director discovered on a recent trip to the cinema

If you’ve been brave enough to venture out to the cinema now that the majority of those in England are open again, you’ll probably have been to see Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster, Tenet.

It’s not too audacious an assumption to make given that a) there aren’t really any other films out right now (the heartbreaking Babyteeth and gritty French crime drama Les Misérables notwithstanding) and that b) the buzz around the film, Nolan’s first celluloid outing since 2017’s Dunkirk, has been building, like layers of fat on a lockdown gut, since its release date was postponed back in mid-July.

A big-budget paean to the cleverness of his own brain, Nolan’s new offering tells the story of a time-travelling “Protagonist” (John David Washington), who has been tasked, alongside his time-travelling sidekick Neil (Robert Pattinson), with defeating a time-travelling Russian oligarch, Sator (Kenneth Branagh, inexplicably), who has – in turn – been sent by a group of unnamed tyrants from the future (obvs) to destroy the world.

Entertaining and visually impactful though the film undoubtedly is – the opening scene, which charts an ill-fated siege in Kiev’s opera house is edge-of-your-seat stuff – Tenet is also occasionally pretentious and often impenetrable. I don’t consider myself to be that much of a stupid person, nor a total luddite, but since watching the film at the cinema (twice) I’ve read the Wikipedia page top to bottom at least three times, I’ve consumed four simply worded plot explainers and I'm still at a relative loss.

One thing I am sure about, however, is the fact that much of the praise the film is currently receiving for its wardrobe is somewhat misplaced.

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Overseen by Oscar-winning costume designer Jeffrey Kurland – best known for his work in Erin Brockovich and Inception – there’s nothing ostensibly wrong with the razor-edged suits and perfectly knitted polo shirts (so many knitted polo shirts) Washington wears for the majority of his talking scenes. Nor is there anything bad about the arch-fop gear – think baggy charcoal two-pieces worn with correspondent shoes and a selection of flyaway art scarves – that Pattinson (who looks something like a down-and-out Sebastian Flyte) sports in various guises during the first half of the film.

In fact, both characters look pretty darn impeccable most of the time – shoulders are tight and waists are nipped – and it's therein, I think, the problem lies.

One of Tenet’s key issues is that from the get-go we don’t really know why we care about any of the people careering around the screen. Sure, we (vaguely) understand by the end of the film why we knew nothing of the Protagonist’s backstory (no spoilers to see here), but at the beginning, when he’s bungee jumping through Mumbai and crash landing in Oslo wearing suits that fit as though they’re straight off a tailor’s dummy and air-tied polo shirts that look as though they’re fresh off a Loro Piana loom, it all feels, well, a bit jarring.

It’s no secret that costumes are used by directors to help bolster the identities of their key characters. In Gangs Of New York, for instance, Scorsese collaborated with Sandy Powell to put Bill The Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) in oversized top hats and figure-defining greatcoats in a bid to enhance his menace. If you’ve seen the film then you’ll know that it worked.

Elsewhere, costume designer Jany Temime – the mastermind behind Daniel Craig’s James Bond’s enviable wardrobe of Tom Ford suits and Omega watches – used 007’s love of finery to help us better understand his character in both Skyfall and Spectre: he’s a good-life-loving materialist with a license to kill and he wants us to know about it.

In both of the aforementioned examples the actors brought such depth of field to their respective roles that the costumes were able to work their magic, lifting the characters off the screen. In the case of the characters in Tenet – Washington's specifically – there’s just not enough meat on the bones to get away with some of the outfits, many of which look as though they’ve been pulled straight from Craig’s Bond wardrobe – that or the “essentials” section on mrporter.com.

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There’s one scene in particular that springs to mind, during which the Protagonist (from this point onwards known as the Pro) is meandering through the streets of Tallinn with Neil as they plan the heist of an armoured truck that is being protected by time-travelling paramilitary types, as you do.

Washington is sporting a perfectly pressed burgundy bomber with a pair of fudge-y high-waisted chinos and (you guessed it) a knitted polo in a fetching shade of Caramac, while Pattinson is wearing a forest safari jacket with a tonal shirt and a loosely tied swamp-green tie.

Not only do the outfits complement each other perfectly (which time travelling spies do you know that coordinate their pre-heist wardrobe choices?), but in the case of the Pro the clothes don’t feel lived in at all. Rather, Washington looks like one of those paper dolls that has had an outfit attached to its front by little cardboard tabs and, as a consequence, the whole set-up feels even more implausible than it already is… which is saying something.

The saving grace in the film – on a clothing front, at least – is Robert Pattinson. His outfits are preposterous, certainly (I’m pretty sure he’s wearing a dove-grey shawl-lapel tuxedo in one of the opening scenes, which takes place during the day. A tuxedo!), but his acting chops are such that the scruff of his look speaks to the mettle of his character. The crumpled linen suit and silk club tie he wears to meet the Pro in Mumbai, for instance, perfectly offsets the swoop of his hair and the stiffening of his upper lip: he's a publicly educated physics professor and he's here to (help) save the world. 

In the same scene, Washington wears a high-shine single-breasted suit in a shade of quartz with a tonal (yup) polo shirt and a pair of brown leather Chelsea boots. With socks. In India. That's not Washington's fault, it's Kurland's, but when early in the film Sator’s disabused wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) says to the Pro during dinner, “You’ve got the suit, the shoes, the watch… I think you’re a little out of your depth,” you can't help but agree.


Via British GQ