Like many period pieces, particularly those that take liberties with historical accuracy, The Favourite is a visual treat. But it’s no confection in the way that, say, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is. Instead, The Favourite is altogether more sour, something weird and compelling.
Tied with Roma for the most 2019 Oscars nominations, The Favourite is set in early-1700s England during the reign of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, up for Best Actress), a monarch plagued by physical ailments and the trauma of losing 17 children. Wickedly funny and at times devastating, it focuses on Anne’s childhood friend and lover Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz, nominated for Best Supporting Actress) and Sarah’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone, ditto), newly arrived to the palace, as they vie for the queen’s affections in the pursuit of power and security.
With his creative team, director Yorgos Lanthimos created a visual style that’s highly specific, a sophisticated mix of restraint and absurdity. Scenes at Hatfield House, the film’s primary location, are lit almost entirely by pale daylight or candles; on film, those vast spaces and hallways bulge wildly thanks to the use of a fisheye lens. Stone, Weisz, and Colman largely wear no makeup; the foppish Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) is never without a full face of lead-based paint and a gigantic wig. Members of Parliament entertain themselves by racing ducks and chucking oranges at a naked man for fun. Why? Why not?
To explain the movie’s most striking — and most telling — visual details, I talked to costume designer Sandy Powell, production designer Fiona Crombie, hair and makeup lead Nadia Stacey, and director of photography Robbie Ryan.
The film is filled with anachronistic details like blue cake, denim, and wheelchairs
Creating the visual world of The Favourite required selective breaks with historical accuracy. Powell, Stacey, and Crombie studied up on early-18th-century English styles to use as the basis of their work, then tweaked them, creating a slightly off-kilter version of reality.
“The danger is that if you don’t stick within the world at all, it looks like you got the period wrong,” says Stacey. “The guideline was to stick within the silhouette of the period but then create our own twist on that.”
For Stacey, that meant following the general shape of men’s wigs from the early 1700s, but for certain scenes, she made them pink, orange, or blue. Similarly, Powell used period-appropriate styles for the costumes, but she largely restricted the color palette to black and white, with some silver and gold in the mix. This created a striking, cohesive look. She also added in modern details, like denim from old jeans that she used to make the kitchen staff’s dresses.
“Anything to make it a little odd, a little off the wall,” Powell writes in an email.
Among the anachronisms in the film’s set pieces are Queen Anne’s wheelchair, which wouldn’t have been invented yet, and a blue cake that she eats in a temper, knowing that it will upset her stomach, and promptly vomits back up.
“Birthday cakes did not exist, and they were definitely not blue,” says Crombie.
That’s what the script called for. The cake is a pastel blue, and while it doesn’t stand out against the set and costumes as a glaring error, it’s meant to be, in Crombie’s words, “just a little bit surreal.” This is the key to the historical inaccuracies in The Favourite’s visuals: Everything makes sense within the logic of the film.
To ratchet up the film’s bizarro quality, Ryan made frequent use of a fisheye lens that warped the scenes to wild effect, underscoring the strangeness of the fictionalized Queen Anne’s court. This was Lanthimos’s idea, Ryan says, and though it was a risky, tricky move — a lens that wide captures so much that a camera operator’s head might poke into the top of the shot if they’re not careful — it paid off.
The queen’s costuming and makeup highlights her misery
Anne’s public appearances are almost always cut short. She panics and collapses while addressing Parliament, when attending a ball she can only stand to be there for a few minutes before demanding to be taken back to her room, and she doesn’t even make it to meet with the Russian ambassador; Sarah informs her that her dramatic eye makeup makes her “look like a badger,” and Anne retreats to her room. In all of these scenes, the queen’s makeup and clothing is extra special: She wears a big white-and-black fur robe for her speaking engagement, and to the party she wears a dress covered in bows and gleaming studs. These costumes are important “in just how massive and uncomfortable they are,” Powell writes.
“Poor Anne spends most of the film in utter misery, so those few scenes where she has no choice but to change out of her nightgown really had to show that contrast. And of course it never lasts long,” she writes.
Underneath those heavy outfits, Colman was wearing prosthetics to give her the appearance of severely swollen legs and feet due to Anne’s gout. She wore a full prosthetic for scenes where her leg is visible, but even when her skirts fully covered her legs, the team used a second version that was easier to apply, to give Colman a constant sense of Anne’s difficulty walking.
When it came to Anne’s makeup for the party scene — a dark, pointed lip and cheek rouge — Stacey wanted it to look “slightly weird and wrong.” The “badger” makeup has an intentionally childish quality. It’s blotchy, as though someone used their fingers to do it, and not very well.
“She’s trying to be as fashionable as the women in the court, but she got someone to do it and she didn’t get it right,” Stacey says.
It took Stacey some time to figure out how to interpret the line “You look like a badger,” since the script doesn’t spell it out. After considering the strong black and white lines in the set and costuming, she landed on a band of black eyeshadow that sweeps outward to the temple, inspired in part by Daryl Hannah’s makeup in Blade Runner.
In many scenes, Colman wore no makeup, as did Stone and Weisz. No foundation, no blush, no mascara — “if anything, a little cover-up for pimples,” Stacey says. This mandate came courtesy of Lanthimos, and it’s a very different approach from the many period pieces in which actors’ cheeks are mysteriously rosy, their skin shockingly clear, and their eyes suspiciously bright (“no makeup” makeup at its most deceptive).
In the costuming, a black-and-white color scheme turns the power plays of court into a game of chess, with each woman’s style tailored to her narrative
Throughout the film, the women in Queen Anne’s court dress in black and white, often embellished with what looks like lace but is actually laser-cut black vinyl or white cotton laid on top of the opposite color. “They come across almost like chess pieces,” Powell says, which is particularly true when the actors are standing on a black-and-white-checked floor during a party scene.
Abigail’s ascent from kitchen maid to the queen’s “favourite” is visible in her clothing, with the balance of black and white signaling her upward trajectory. At the start of the movie, Abigail has fallen on hard times, so Powell dressed Stone in “something that would have been nice once, though now is worn out.” Since white fabric would have been a signal of wealth, Powell added more white to her dresses over the course of the movie.
“As a lady-in-waiting, Abigail starts in plain black, and as she graduates higher in status to Queen’s maid and then to lady again after she marries, we incorporated more white into her outfit,” Powell writes in an email. “She comes into money and her clothes get finer and she adds more makeup and jewelry, almost to the point of vulgarity.”
Some of the most eye-catching costumes in the film belong to Sarah, who wears menswear-inflected outfits to go shooting and riding. For the former activity, she wears a white-and-black coat and a tricorn hat, along with trousers and tall boots; for the latter, she goes for an all-black look in a fabric made to look like leather.
“I wanted her to be strong and in command, if not ‘masculine’ in the sense we usually see,” Powell explains. “So you have the trousers, with other modern touches like fake leather to supplement. The idea had been that as any emancipated woman might, she could incorporate menswear into her outfits and look great in it, almost like an 18th-century Katharine Hepburn. Rachel carries herself like that anyway, confident and in control, so it wasn’t a difficult look for her.”
The queen’s bedroom is a space for political meetings and power jockeying, and it’s constantly in flux
Covered in tapestries, Anne’s room was the largest and most ornate in Hatfield House, the location where much of The Favourite takes place. Crombie simplified the space by taking out the carpets, and she installed a custom four-poster bed and elaborate cages for the queen’s many pet rabbits, each one representing a child she’d lost. The cages she decorated like dollhouses, with tiny silver bowls, miniature cakes, microgreens, and small brushes.
Anne’s room is a kind of retreat from the world, but it’s also a semi-public forum. Members of Parliament come to her bedside for meetings, and it’s where Abigail and Sarah vie for her affections. As such, Anne’s room is messy and lived-in, filled with flowers and food in various states of consumption, constantly shifting to fit the needs of its inhabitants.
It’s also where Anne suffers from attacks of gout in the middle of the night. Crombie’s team did detailed research into the era’s remedies for gout, and for those scenes, they dressed Anne’s room with medical equipment, pastes, and jars of real leeches. (“They’re not that easy to come by,” says Crombie.) You’d probably miss the leeches because those scenes are candlelit and relatively dark, Crombie says, but they’re sitting with the doctor’s equipment. It’s unappetizing details like these that prevent the film from becoming too precious.
The men of The Favourite are ridiculous, peacocks in fashion and whimsical in their pastimes
The men of The Favourite frequently come off as ludicrous; their political concerns are incidental to the real drama unfolding between the three women. Nobody embodies this more than opposition leader Harley, whose forceful personality is matched only by his over-the-top ensembles, towering wigs, and heeled shoes. Actor Nicholas Hoult already clears 6 feet, and in costume, he’s a giant.
“I wanted him to be this larger-than-life character,” says Stacey. “The wigs just got bigger and bigger, and the bigger they got, the more Yorgos loved it.”
Stacey devised a variety of wigs for Harley, including a horned affair that signals his devilish inclinations and a long orange wig that he wears on more celebratory occasions. He wears white face paint and rouge throughout, with a shifting roster of black patches (for instance, in the shape of a rampant lion) adhered to his cheeks and chin depending on the situation.
As Harley says to his friend Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), “A man must look pretty.”
But he doesn’t totally. Stacey wanted the men’s hair and makeup to look somewhat crude. Their wigs were meant to look like they’d been worn for days, not freshened up every single morning in a trailer. The white makeup caked on their faces, which would have damaged the skin due to its lead content, was sweaty and imperfect.
“The fact is, in that era they would have been really dirty, smelly people,” Stacey says. “The wigs would have had lice in them.”
Some of the absurdist fun in The Favourite comes from the men of Parliament and court, who entertain themselves by racing ducks and throwing oranges at a naked man wearing a wig, a scene that comes without context. These events take place in the same room, and Crombie wanted them to have a spontaneous quality, as though someone suddenly suggested that they hold a duck race or have a party. The duck circuit was staged to look improvised, made from wooden stools and benches placed on their side. An animal handler dressed in costume threw fish to get them to run, because ducks are not much inclined to do so.
“Those spaces just constantly change. There’s something so lovely about the idea of whim,” Crombie says.
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