A packed out screening of The Favourite, was enough to banish the New Year blues, as was the sound of the man next to me squirming as Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz touched lips. Greetings, 2019!
I am once again obliged to give thanks at the altar of Greek god Yorgos Lanthimos for another stellar cinematic experience. Building on the transforming strangeness of Dogtooth (2009) and the cult status of the nihilistic indie rom-com The Lobster (2015), comes The Favourite, a twisted but immensely fun historical romp like no other.
A beautifully realised proto-Barry Lyndon (1975) meets the chaotic comedic runaround In the Loop (2009), this political comedy of ill-manners plays with anarchy like an out-of-tune harpsichord. Bewigged and bosom-filled, surprises also lay in store as unexpected heart-wrenching pathos is also achieved, thanks to a barnstorming performance from Olivia Colman as Queen Anne.
Set in the court of the ill-equipped (both in health and in political savvy) Queen Anne during a messy war with France (which one, I am never quite sure, and is increasingly irrelevant as the film goes on), the women lead the regal procession of good performances here, Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Dance dance a matriarchal jig of schemes, manipulation and seduction (basically, all the good stuff) to curry favour with the other.
Colman, incapable of being bad in anything, including an old AA advert, is stomach-churningly monstrous yet sympathetic, a lifetime of grief and miscarriages leaving a wretched shell behind that seeks solace in her “children” – 17 bunnies – and controlled dependency with childhood friend and lover Lady Marlborough, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz).
The deplorable court of Queen Anne is largely controlled by Lady Sarah. Wickedly astute, possessive and playing with courtisans and politicians like chewtoys, Weisz strides about, cocksure in magnificent Sandy Powell costumes that expertly reflect her ability to socially code-switch from devoted wife, political puppet-master and rakish lover.
In comes a scene-stealing Emma Stone as the down-on-her-luck evil genius Abigail, Sarah’s cousin and now servant in the queen’s residence. Her canny knack at worming her way into the affections of the monarch – “I like it when she puts her tongue inside me” *cue man next to me squirming x1000* – sets off a chain of petty and agile one-upmanship between the cousins.
This is Lanthimos’s most sprightly film, following the unknowable The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), it harks back to some of the more darkly acerbic elements in The Lobster, where he first worked with Colman and Weisz. He continues a fascination with the constraints of social and human interaction, weaponising the absurd with razor-sharp precision. Transport this story to a modern day office setting or to Ancient Rome, and the power struggles, the pettiness and class issues would remain rampant. Strange, off-kilter camera angles, ultra wide fisheye shots distort the setting, zooming in on the polarised isolated environment, as if we’re viewing the world via a secret nanny cam left in the corner of the room.
Everyone in this creation is removed from reality, exempt from serious historical analysis that is neither the point not the centre of this film. Talk of a French invasion and a farmer revolt is regarded in the abstract and the queen’s sense of divinity is shattered in the very first scenes – “You look like a badger”. The abundantly grotesque characters wield power with as much fervour as impunity, and as the machinations verge on the deadly, we’re luckily never too far away from a solid laugh to remind us as the silliness of it all. Brilliant stuff.