It’s a strange thing about film being such a collaborative medium; there are as many different ways to watch a film as there were people who played a role in making it. When ITV screened Dancing Queen the other week, they did so because it starred the sadly departed Rik Mayall – it was part of a series originally meant to showcase the man himself, following the enormous popularity of Bottom. In fact it’s a pretty awful showcase for Mayall himself, who is cast in the role of a more-or-less ordinary human man – as opposed to the manic, perverse, vicious, cowardly, but somehow sympathetic creatures he played so brilliantly in his best-loved work.
What Dancing Queen does showcase well are a few oddly striking costumes worn by Helena Bonham Carter. She plays the “Julia Roberts” role in a half-hearted attempt to re-tread Pretty Woman, with a streak of Withnail & I carnage, in the form of a rather cobbled-together 90’s TV movie. Her character’s wardrobe stands out though, seeming to give her more of a personality than anything in the script. A quick look on IMDB revealed the reason, and the true star of the show – renowned costume designer Lindy Hemming.
I say “renowned” – obviously in the film world, unless you’re an actor, a writer, or a director, that word comes with some pretty heavy qualifiers. Lindy Hemming is “renowned for a costume designer,” mainly because of her work on the recently rebooted Bond and Batman franchises. Her recent success is really just a footnote, however, to a long and illustrious career. Like most punters I rarely ever contemplate the myriad of people who contribute to the films I watch, preferring to just give Stanley Kubrick all the credit and call it a day. Noticing Hemming’s stand-out work once made me wonder – what happens if you analyse a costume designer’s work with the same ignorant, generalising exuberance we always give directors?
The first step, obviously, is to identify her authorial traits. The big one is obvious from the opening scenes of Naked (1993), a ferocious film about how “hurt people hurt people”. All Hemming’s costumes are crafted with care to give each character a lived-in sense of reality, but at the centre of the film is Johnny – a homeless, vicious, traumatised man who burns his last remaining bridge to the human race as we watch.
In an interview given much later, on the intricacies of tailoring James Bond’s many tuxedoes, Hemming discusses the difficulty of shooting on a black fabric: “you lose the detail that’s on it…because of the way the light hits the fabric”. The trick, she says, is to substitute “the darkest grey or midnight blue,” to give a black effect while preserving the texture of the clothing.
Throughout Naked, Johnny wears a black coat over a black cardigan, with black trousers above a pair of black shoes, and carries a black satchel. The precise effect of costume clearly varies depending on the lighting of different scenes, but in the most iconic images from the film Hemming’s maxim is proven – Johnny is essentially just the outline of a man cut out of the screen.
All-black clothing might seem like the simplest, crudest shorthand for “A Character Who Is Depressed” but in this context, as always with Hemming, it’s rooted in a deeper understanding of the character and what drives him. As the film goes on it becomes clear that Johnny isn’t just depressed – he’s trying to destroy himself. His trajectory through the film ultimately looks like a kamikaze dive towards oblivion, which culminates in rejecting the only offer of help he’s likely to get. It’s strongly implied in the final scenes that he may have been abused as a child, and that his belligerent attitude is really an attempt to escape his victimhood by play-acting the role of abuser. That black-hole of a costume fits perfectly with our final image of a man determined to scrub himself out.
I would be tempted to skip over Four Weddings and a Funeral as a minor work in the Hemming oeuvre, if it weren’t for the fact that it contains an actual subplot which riffs on the exact same theme. Amongst all the faithfully gauche wedding attire, Hugh Grant’s friend Kristin Scott Thomas is constantly garbed in black throughout the film. She explains in one scene that this is an expression of her unrequited love for him (and who can blame her?). It’s only at the climax of the film that she gives up her impossible dream and Hemming lets loose her colour palette.
Obviously we could speculate about the role some writer or director might have played in these scenes, but I choose to see them as proof of Hemming establishing herself as an auteur, and allowing her own themes to develop beyond the boundaries of costume itself. The juxtaposition between darkness and colour is, after all, echoed in the costume she gives Gareth (Simon Callow), whose traditionally grim formal wear is ruptured by an explosion of riotous pastels. Hemming could almost be seen as ‘correcting’ her earlier work in Naked here; filling in that black outline again.
It’s in 1995’s Goldeneye that Hemming’s recurring use of black starts to seem like an obsession. Throughout the opening sequence, Pierce Brosnan’s Bond and his partner Alec (Sean Bean) wear solid, special forces black from head-to-toe. Just as Lindy states in her primer, it is practically impossible to make out a single seam or detail on their costumes. Later in the film, Brosnan burns through a surprising variety of outfits – from tuxes to frumpy, Alan Partridge blazers. She recalls that her intention was to move the character away from “the Timothy Dalton reality, street feeling and back into a more gentlemanly man…who could move effortlessly through business meetings and industrial espionage”.
The character of Alec however, who emerges as the film’s villain, remains dressed almost entirely in solid blacks throughout. Looking back now I realise it always struck me as odd, even when I was little, but I only now see just how deliberate Hemming’s commitment was. There is hardly a splash of colour on the character anywhere in the film, and like Johnny, Bean often only registers as a dark hole where the film should be. As it would be too bizarre for Hemming to have accidentally violated her own cardinal rule, especially one which she explicitly applies to the Bond franchise, her decision to do so is clearly the deliberate choice of a daring artist.
Hemming’s blacks here do not just act as a signifier of “A VERY BAD MAN,” but also tie into the specific villainy of the character. Having faked his own death at the start of the film, and received a wound from Bond which he considers a personal betrayal, Alec is characterised throughout as a vengeful ghost risen from the grave. While Bond escapes from their shared, plain black uniform into a whole universe of styles and colours, his ex-partner is frozen in and driven by that first scene of abandonment and “death”. As in Naked, Hemming’s use of black is deceptively complex, and ties into the emotional core of the characters with her characteristic thoughtfulness.
It’s also worth noting that the costumes for Goldeneye’s Bond girl, Natalia (Izabella Scorupco), are astonishingly modest compared to all other Bond films made before or since. She is introduced wearing a very functional, everyday ‘girl-next-door’ outfit, which the scene even draws attention to by pointedly showing a grotesque erotic cartoon by way of comparison. Astonishingly, Natalia wears this for a full three quarters of the film before we get the obligatory shots of her inexplicably wandering around in lingerie.
Even more astonishingly, the gratuitous nudity is all squeezed into one thirty-second scene, before she changes into another practical, common-sense outfit for the remainder of the film. Although, to be honest, this probably says less about Hemming’s authorial imprint, and more about how much more nervous we were about womens’ liberation in 1995 than we are today (now that sexism is, like, totally over, or ironic, or whatever). Especially since she also designed Casino Royale, which was once again filmed on location in the Democratic Republic of Juggsagonia.
Topsy Turvy is a difficult film for me to work in here, because it really doesn’t feature black in a particularly noteworthy way, but it was unquestionably a high point in Hemming’s career, for which she rightly took home the glory of an Academy Award. Particular delights include the fact that Hemming not only recreates the “Victorian Japanese” costumes from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, but shows us their complete evolutionary history. We first see the real-life Japanese clothing of visiting natives, then the gaudy, exaggerated costumes from traditional Japanese ‘Noh’ theatre, which in turn inspired the even more cartoonish extravagance of the English operetta.
There’s a thrill too in the way Hemming allows the fantastical on-stage and mundane off-stage clothing of her characters to mingle in and out of each other. We see each of the principal ‘actor’ characters on-stage in various larger-than-life costumes several times, before we finally see them as themselves out in the real world halfway through the film. Topsy Turvy gives Hemming not one but (at least) three layers of fictional “reality” to dress, and her attentive work makes each of them feel every bit as weighty and substantial as our own.
Having established Hemming’s authorial obsession with blackness so strongly in your mind, I know what you will think when I type the words Batman Begins (2005) at this point. But you are wrong. At this stage in her career, flush with her Oscar success, Hemming is no longer bound by her earlier preoccupations. The first of Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight films in fact represents an explosion of fascinating and various possibilities for the designer, who made herself such an asset to this film’s atmosphere it’s easy to see why she was invited back for the second two.
I’ve always been impressed by how much storytelling this film fits into its first 15 minutes but, watching it with my new costume-goggles on, I’m amazed how much of that can be credited to Hemming’s inventiveness. We only really need to look at one short sequence – Bruce Wayne’s journey up into the mountains, to find his ninja training retreat. The travelling montage lasts all of two minutes, but in that short time Hemming takes Wayne through four distinct costume changes. Each one builds on the last as he adds layers and accessories to his outfit, which firstly alerts us to the passage of time (we know he’s walking longer than 20 minutes), and achieves the serious character-work of showing us how resourcefully Wayne is adapting to his environment.
The film’s costume design is full of little flourishes of this attention to detail, which does so much to flesh out its essentially sparse world and characters:
- The overly-baggy coat worn by a younger Wayne, which makes Bale look like a nervous little boy dressed up in daddy’s clothes.
- The fact that Wayne LITERALLY dresses up in his daddy’s monogrammed pyjamas as he starts to claim his legacy.
- The fact that Liam Neeson’s mentor looks completely out of place wearing a designer suit and tie in the middle of an Asian warzone – because he is in fact playing the role of a non-existent person, as part of an elaborate mindgame.
Unfortunately, Nolan’s second two Dark Knight films pretty much epitomise the opposite relationship. Despite success in other areas, both films completely sacrificed any kind of substantial character work or thought-through narrative in favour of highfalutin, abstract pseudo-intellectualism, and nowhere is that as painfully clear as in its impact on Hemming’s design work.
90% of the costume design in both films consists of all the major characters wearing expensive, perfect-looking designer suits, with little to no variation. Lucius Fox sometime wears a bow tie; Bruce Wayne sometimes wears a waistcoat; Commissioner Gordon likes earth tones; that’s about it for character work. This is not a failure on Hemming’s part, but reflects the lack of ambition in both films as a whole. Her designs no longer suggest any depth or humanity in any of the characters, because the films simply do not require it. Like the majority of Nolan’s output over the last ten years, his two Dark Knights are composed of hard, perfect, hollow surfaces, with very little substance or grit to be found anywhere.
There are anomalies here and there, like the Joker’s costume in The Dark Knight, but they really only highlight the problem. That costume in itself, even just sitting on a mannequin – with its careful composition and optical-illusion patterns – works so hard to suggest a complexity and depth of characterisation which just isn’t there in the film.
In one revealing interview, Hemming refers to the reappearance of Dr Crane in the third film – a rare moment of fun, in which the “Scarecrow” appears almost as tattered and dishevelled as the genuine article, with straw-like lining bursting out of his seams. Hemming recalls that Crane “even had a scarecrow’s hat – a puritan hat – on the desk in front of him, which I tried to get them to use, but they said it’d be too extreme”.
For the record, this is the scene in which an escaped mental patient sits on top of a 20 foot pile of desks and filing cabinets, sentencing dissidents to death with the authority of a dictatorship that has been formed by an inarticulate body-builder in what feels like about 48 hours, in order to get revenge on a millionaire who punches muggers while wearing a cape. But yeah, thank God they got rid of that hat. It would have totally taken me out of the moment.
The wretched fate of this hat sums up the ultimate fate of the Hemming/Nolan partnership – a supposedly subordinate collaborator struggling valiantly to replace substance and artistry which their superiors have misplaced. It seems to have been utterly excised from all deleted and “undeleted” scenes, but if anyone can find a photo online please send it in. I’d honestly rather see a picture of that hat at this point than Christopher Nolan’s next film. #realtalk
You don’t have to follow the thread of this particular costume designer’s career for very long to see that she puts more attention and care into these worlds and their inhabitants than most writers or directors do. It’s often hard to remember just how collaborative an artform filmmaking is, but you couldn’t ask for a better reminder than the work of Lindy Hemming.