Sandy Powell has won three Academy Awards for her costumes, so it’s no surprise there are great expectations for her latest film project, The Favourite. She talks to Jennifer McShane about giving a punk edge to a period genre.
After over 30 years working in the film industry, British costume designer Sandy Powell has received more than a few accolades for her incredible work. She has been nominated for an Academy Award 12 times – and won three – and has 13 BAFTA nominations to her name, yet she tells me she never loses her enthusiasm for the challenge of the next project. “I’m always looking for something different, something that inspires me.”
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ unique take on a period movie is, Powell says, what drew her to her latest project. “A combination of the film’s subject matter and the director were really appealing to me. I actually much prefer a period lm that has a twist – and I knew in the hands of Yorgos, we were going to get something that was not going to be conventional.”
Lanthimos’ third English-language film is far from conventional but is easily his most accessible. Set in the early 1700s during the brief reign of Queen Anne (played by a mesmerising Olivia Colman) The Favourite centres on three incredibly strong and very different female characters. We find the royal vessel frail and distracted tended to by her lifelong friend Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Feathers are ruffled when Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) arrives and makes a play for a monarch starved of affection, resulting in a darkly comedic battle of power.
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Powell’s work in the movie is a standout. Her costumes rarely veer toward the anachronistic; under her, the film takes on a contemporary punk- rock edge, using recycled denim, African prints, and historically inaccurate fabrics for a chic, alternative approach to historical elegance. A key touchpoint is that all three leading characters were told to look as natural as possible – Queen Anne spends the majority of the film in her nightgown. “A key thing for me was that she essentially spends the film in her pyjamas.
Abigail’s character had a real arc we could show via costume,” Powell explains. “She starts out in faded clothing because she was a lady once before, becoming a servant following a Lady in Waiting. She then takes the look of the court, which was monochrome, white with black and only really goes over-the-top in terms of her dress the higher she climbs. With Sarah, I always wanted her to look striking and in control – she’s the one who wears the pants.”
There is an obvious role reversal in terms of how the different genders are depicted throughout, something Powell agreed was one of the most interesting elements of the film. “It’s the men who look like ridiculous peacocks in wigs, high-heeled shoes and make-up, whereas the women look natural; no make-up and like they are wearing clothes, not costumes. I think it’s a very interesting reversal because we’re so used to seeing films about men.
“Quite often and for many, many years, we’ve seen the women be wives, girlfriends and mothers and be reduced to being decorative in the background with not a lot to do.”
Our talk turns to Ireland, and Powell says it’s a country she’s always loved working in. “For a while, it seemed as if I was there every year.” Indeed, she has left her mark on a number of Irish films, done with director Neil Jordan. The pair have collaborated four times, notably on Michael Collins, The Crying Game and The Butcher Boy. She says it was a shock to realise The Crying Game was over 25 years old. “What’s interesting is that while it still works, it looks like a period film now, as opposed to the contemporary film we were making at the time.”
The Favourite is in cinemas now.
This article was originally published in the January/February issue of IMAGE magazine.