Review – The Favourite (2018)
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colmam, Nicholas Hoult, James Smith, Mark Gatiss, Joe Alwyn
While far from a household name, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is somewhat of a critical darling, thanks to wildly original, confrontingly absurdist visions like Dogtooth, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Dear. The Favourite, a crackling, dark comedy which challenges our expectations of the costume drama, is Lanthimos’ third English language film and is his most accessible and straight up entertaining film thus far, marking his opportunity to cross over into more mainstream recognition.
Having been lost by her father, along with their estate and, therefore, her title, in a game of cards, Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives at the palace of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) to ask her cousin Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough, for employment as a servant. The Queen, petulant, infantile and seemingly more interested in her seventeen pet rabbits than in affairs of state, seems hopelessly unfit to rule, so as her closest friend and valued advisor Sarah effectively runs the kingdom. Having recently scored a decisive victory in the war with France, the parliament is divided about what to do next. Lord Harley (Nicholas Hoult), leader of the opposition, is pushing for a treaty, believing the stresses placed on the working population are too great for the war to continue. Sarah, whose husband happens to be commander of the British army, is promoting the government line that the war can be won with one final push, though an increase in the land tax would be required to finance it. With Sarah distracted, Abigail quickly establishes herself as a rival for the Queen’s affection.
A film about power, who has it, how they wield it, and why, The Favourite is built around three magnetic female protagonists and three eye-catching performances. For award season purposes, Fox Searchlight have chosen to designate Olivia Colman as the lead, with Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz being considered in the supporting categories, but any such distinction is entirely arbitrary. These are three equally meaty roles. Sarah and Abigail are worthy adversaries, each as calculated and cunning as the other. Abigail is driven by a ruthless ambition. A master manipulator, as soon as she sets foot in the palace she goes to work, with every interaction a stepping stone towards getting what she wants. On the other hand, while Sarah’s relationships have definitely brought her influence, and she is willing to do whatever it takes to defend that power, we don’t doubt that they are genuine relationships. Caught in between them is Queen Anne. But she too is no two dimensional character. There is a point, long after we have written her off as a silly figure, where in the space of only a sentence or two Queen Anne hits us with an incredibly moving revelation about her past which instantly transforms our perception of this character from a novelty to a figure of tragedy. It is a marvellous piece of performance from Olivia Colman.
The dynamics between these three characters as they all scheme and attempt to outmanoeuvre each other are delicious – and it is all three of them, as while appearing otherwise daft, the Queen is all too aware of this battle for her affections and is not above playing Sarah and Abigail off against each other. The film is at its best when we are in the midst of the scheming and the to-and-fro, and the upper hand is constantly changing. The second act culminates with one character taking a decisive action which fundamentally changes this dynamic which has driven the film to that point, and unfortunately the result is a slight loss of momentum in the film’s closing chapters.
The foundation of the film, and a key to its relative accessability as far as a Lanthimos film goes, is Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s razor sharp screenplay. The Favourite is a wickedly funny film. One moment you are appreciating the biting dialogue, at once sparklingly witty and vulgar in an aristocratic way. The next moment you are taken by surprise when what appears to be a standard ballroom scene is undermined by the performance of a truly ludicrous dance. The ease with which the film can balance the savage and the silly is most impressive.
Just as the humour and language – The Favourite uses its quota of C-bombs – challenges the gentility we have come to expect of the costume drama, so too does the film’s look. While Sandy Powell’s costumes and Fiona Crombie’s production design are every bit as sumptuous and detailed as we would expect of an 18th century period drama, Lanthimos employs a strikingly atypical visual language. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan controls our sense of the physical space, using a combination of fish eye lenses and sudden 90 and 180 degree pans, the result of which is a heightened yet distorted perspective of space.
That the end credits include characters like ‘Fastest Duck in the City,’ ‘Wanking Man’ and ‘Nude Pomegranate Tory’ gives some indication as to the slightly off-centre film that The Favourite is. But it is magnificently performed, beautifully presented, and wickedly fun.
Review by Duncan McLean
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