Film critic Scott Wilson heralds in the new year with a review of the darkly comic awards contender The Favourite.
The Favourite – ★★★★☆
In the hands of Yorgos Lanthimos, even that most conservative of genres, the period drama, can’t help but become utterly bizarre. Known for the off-kilter The Lobster, the sinister folktale The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and the frankly disturbing Dogtooth, the Greek director delights in a playful tone that is distinct in delivery and bewildering beyond belief.
The Favourite tells the story of an ailing Queen Anne, her secret lover, and the woman who wanted a piece of the action. Rachel Weisz’s Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, is in the Queen’s ear, played to perfection by Olivia Colman, hotly tipped for some Best Actress awards. As the Queen becomes ever more delirious, the Duchess rules the land in her stead, making decisions on behalf of the crown. Their relationship is one in which Sarah is both a carer and a partner, in command of and at the behest of Anne.
It works for them until Sarah’s cousin, Abigail Hill, shows up. Played by Emma Stone with characteristic charm and wide-eyed enthusiasm, what begins as a trodden upon role working as a maid becomes something more after spying Sarah and the Queen together. So begins a manipulative game of social politics, both women trying to out-manoeuvre each other to become Anne’s favourite and ultimately become the most powerful person in the kingdom.
The world is full of plotters and schemers, and The Favourite does its part in showing how that has always been the way. What could be more depressing as we begin a new year?
Lanthimos’s fingerprints are all over the premise. Some monarchs loom large in our culture, but Queen Anne is relatively unknown. He has – and gleefully takes – creative license to turn her into whatever the story requires, which is a petulant figurehead, aware of her power but unequipped to deal with it. Her impulsive decision making is led entirely by emotion, and she seeks small joys over fulfilling her duties, such as eating food she knows will make her ill and sitting on the floor playing with her many rabbits.
But these rabbits are a hint of The Favourite’s dark heart. While we are invited to laugh at the Queen’s oddities, she talks of her many lost children, each pet representing her stillborn births and those dead soon after. With 17 pregnancies, none of her children lived longer than two years. She’s a figure of mockery here, yet she is this way because of a constant string of tragedy that would leave those with the strongest wills profoundly broken.
Which makes The Favourite feel horrid. Sarah and Abigail are fighting for influence over a vulnerable woman, and their fighting is vicious. Driven by self-serving greed for power, there is little to stop either woman from lowering the tone and then some. In some ways it is hilarious, but the humour is never far from deeply black, always aware that what is happening is morally repugnant.
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This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has seen a Yorgos Lanthimos film before. While often funny, there is always something affectingly twisted about their premises. The quirky performances and odd camera angles leave his films emotionally unengaging, but by making them so dark, there is still an evocation of something terrible, whether that’s because of the incest in Dogtooth or the murderous curse in The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
The performances are less stunted than before, to the film’s credit. Where The Lobster felt like Colin Farrell (intentionally) had a gun to his head and was forced to perform, The Favourite has more familiar cadences and melodies. The rhythms are still abnormal, turning Queen Anne’s “I’ve sent for some lobsters, I thought we could race them then eat them” into comedy gold simply because it’s delivered so, well, strangely. Olivia Colman is an expert at this kind of dialogue, and while she argues this is a film of three equals, it is hard not to think she takes the crown.
But it is a tricky film to surmise. While it is a comedy – and, crucially, it is funny – there is too much nastiness to consider it a good time. The world is full of plotters and schemers, and The Favourite does its part in showing how that has always been the way. What could be more depressing as we begin a new year?
As a film that is meticulously crafted, it is hard to imagine how it could have been executed more perfectly. From the lavish costumes to the unsettling score, from the wacky revisionism to the stellar performances, it all comes together as controlled madness. Madness of the comical sort and madness of the terrible sort.
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