Production and Costume Designs may seem trivially technical awards, but anyone who sat through Aquaman knows how well some genuinely hilarious costumes can offset the dullness of a bad flic. As is often the case the lineup of nominees in these two categories are almost identical exchanging only Roma and First Man for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Mary Queen of Scots and are dominated to the last spot by period pieces and fantasy films.
It’s hard to dissect such an integral part of a film in isolation, as the production design is so often the kind of thing that you won't notice if its good, which is why the nominees so often list towards the films where it clearly just took a lot of effort, recreating a particular period or a new environment. In this respect, Mary Poppins Returns had the biggest hill to climb, necessitating that the mise-en-scene look contiguous with another film made fifty years earlier but set thirty years earlier and still have a unique flavour of its own that fits the timbre of the new production and songs, working in both period and fantasy styles. It’s a large part of the success of the film, and it was a huge success, whatever Peggy says, that the lavish sets of Cherrytree lane and the Royal Doulton Music Hall look both lavishly colourful yet storybook homemade at the same time and provide an endless assortment of costumes for Emily Blunt to look fabulous in.
The only other creative settings created by the nominees were those for Black Panther, which presented a similar set of problems. Wakanda had to look like it belonged in the same universe as the rest of the Marvel Canon yet still feel like somewhere we hadn’t gone yet. It had to look fresh, vibrant and exhilarating and the mere fact that production designer Hannah Beachler found a futuristic city that didn’t look like yet another Blade Runner rip off is notable in and of itself. However, in Wakanda, we are presented with fantasy in the truest sense of the word, a vision of what Central Africa might have been had colonialism never happened and the natural resources of the continent been exploited to the benefit of the people who lived there and not been shipped out in crates. This is why, for all the overhype Black Panther is most certainly getting and believe me I understand the backlash, I think the people who downplay its cultural importance are missing something. It’s not just a question of, “finally here’s a black superhero”, its racial ethos is baked into the narrative and the setting. It’s a kind of politicism you rarely get in mainstream blockbusters and it’s all the more gratifying for being so subtle that so many could ignore it.
In contrast, films like The Favourite, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Roma and even First Man, have, as their basic requirement, to look ‘in period’ and that’s it. Obviously, the production design and costumes are part of telling the story, but no more in a period film than any other, so why are so few contemporary-set films nominated in this category? I don’t mean to downplay the effort it takes, it is hard work making everything look opulent and lived in or nostalgically evocative for the films set within living memory. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs deserves a round of applause for those Chaps on Tim Blake Nelson alone and First Man should just be nominated in more categories generally, however, well regular Christopher Nolan collaborator Nathan Crowley recreated the Armstrong household. I just long for a little variety is all, especially when so many costume dramas look the same.
I think it’s very likely that considering the density of its lived-in sets, one of the statuettes Roma charters a removals van to take away with it will have Best Production Design engraved on it somewhere, and since she’s up for both, I expect costume designer Sandy Powell will walk off with a somewhat deserved win for either The Favourite or Mary Poppins Returns. However, I'm a little salty that the Isle of Dogs, the only truly unique looking movie this year, the gorgeously costumed Colette and dusty gothic drama The Little Stranger seem not to have been considered. I’m also upset Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again wasn’t either but I’m mostly keeping that opinion to myself.