Bawdy, raucous and wicked.
Ah, Yorgos Lanthimos. The Greek auteur behind a mood-bending oeuvre of sometimes day-ruining arthouse work (looking at you, Killing of a Sacred Deer). His latest feature, The Favourite, is a little different from his brutal but dangerously tenuous efforts. A period piece free from his penmanship, replaced by the deliciously boorish minds of Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, who soften the quirks of their director and illuminate his vision with the courteous assistance of splendiferous acting. The consistent marketing may be stand-offish due to the pretentious typeface, but don’t be wary, this is Lanthimos’ most accessible work to date.
We’re in 18th century England. There’s two wars going on; one between Britain and France, and the other between the leading women of the house. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is deteriorating, easily rattled and inanely self-pitying. On her majesty’s loyal service is Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), attending to her most very personal needs while helping to orchestrate her political rule. All is peaceful until Sarah’s impoverished cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives looking for work. A seemingly innocent wish sparks tensions, as favourites shift and grudges grow between the trio.
Immediately you’re at home with the director; wide-shots whip across scenes and quirky camerawork with a fish-eye lens breaks up the arrangement. The latter is a distracting device that annoyingly splices between Robbie Ryan’s sumptuous, racing cinematography. He rather brilliantly accelerates nearly every moment, aggressively framing baroque interiors and enveloping, fire-lit gardens with an energetic whizz that laughs in the face of those who’d dare to suggest period films are plodding. Even the musical composition (for which no single composer is attached) is both classical and uptempo, used smugly but never inappropriately to add another layer of panache to an already formidable picture.
Watching as relationships form and strain between three fiercely intelligent but immensely flawed women is completely captivating. It’s almost like watching a playground battle take place on a royal scale – the immaturity is the same, but the stakes are freedom or slavery. Easily one of the finest acting trifecta’s in recent years; Colman is particularly terrific as the anything-but-civil Queen, masterfully both motherly and childlike in her need for attention. She’s volatile and loose, shouting at young boys for not looking at her and then looking at her, weeping at the insult of being described as a badger, and munching on a feast of stomach-churning sugary treats against the dictation of her health.
Weisz however is fiendishly jealous, both a sour, nasty manipulator and a willing pawn in the Queen’s emotional firing range. Far less showy but just as well done, her performance grips through her villainess eyes and sardonic wit, of which Stone is often on the other end of. There’s more to her than meets the eye though, as her role switches from servant to saboteur, making for a delightfully wicked character to add to her menagerie. She’s also afforded some of the zingers in the killer screenplay; a highlight is an exchange between her and Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), who comes into her room late at night. “Have you come to seduce me or rape me?” she asks. “I am a gentleman,” he says. “Rape then,” she replies.
The script is littered with hilariously vile, ribald remarks, c-bombs exclaimed with aplomb (keep your ears open for something like “bluntstruck”). It feels fresh and dynamic when the comedy could have been bogged down by the slow burn of Lanthimos’ usual mood. Animals aren’t often given a fair deal in his movies, but here they escape relatively scot-free (a late scene in which a bunny is slowly squished is excruciating, but fortunately it’s curbed rather quickly). Occasionally scenes drag a little with chichi cross-fades that add more to the sense that the editing is versatile but not always effective. But as a study of petulance, machiavellian morality and monstrous extravagance, this is awards-worthy drama with a mean bite.
A stunning trifecta of women lead this delectably vicious tale on the gluttony of power.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm