Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Stars: Olivia Coleman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz
There was a moment in the screening of The Favourite I attended during which my attention was briefly diverted from the screen. From behind me on the far left came the low clunk of the cinema door closing. This shortly after the third or fourth C-bomb was dropped by a major character. I can’t say for sure whether it was the surprising language of Yorgos Lanthimos’ raucous period comedy that caused that person to leave, but I can quite imagine it. As previously – particularly with The Lobster – Lanthimos is here to unhook the safety net from comfortable, conservative populist cinema.
Anyone who saw The Lobster can attest that it wasn’t quite the Wes Anderson-esque comedy that its brisk trailer promoted, but it most certainly was a Yorgos Lanthimos picture. His is a defined and stylistic world – every bit as meticulous as Anderson’s – but built from the grimly comic, the morbidly fascinating and the awkwardly stilted. Last year’s The Killing Of A Sacred Deer exemplified all of these qualities, but didn’t quite manage to claim the mainstream’s attention. The Favourite is liable to fare much better, especially here in the UK, where stuffy palace dramas never go out of fashion. But will the masses be quite ready for what’s being delivered? I hope so, because there is much to relish.
We are in early 18th century England. Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) is on the throne and an unpopular war with France refuses to wane. Dottering, baby-like and always eccentric, her closest confidant is Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz); a firm fixture of her inner circle. Indeed, Lady Sarah wields a great deal of influence, and appears as forthright in running the country as the monarch herself. Into this arena comes Abigail Hall (Emma Stone), Lady Sarah’s cousin and a former lady now very much down on her luck, employed as a scullery maid but with no intention of remaining in such a position. When she learns the queen is afflicted with gout, Abigail picks herbs for a poultice to sooth her pains. The act does not go unnoticed; nor does Abigail let it. Lady Sarah sees all, and knows a threat when she sees one. The rivalry begins…
Brought to the screen from a wicked script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, Lanthimos’ film is a persistent riot, one more concerned with tickling ribs than paying fealty to historical accuracy. It marks both a continuation of his ongoing and excellent form, and a slight loosening of the restrictive tics that have come to inhabit his work. Though it initially appears otherwise, the deadpan dialogue exchanges that typify his films has softened for a more acerbic flow, likely dictated by the wonderful screenplay. The Kubrickian influence on framing and camera glide that pressed so heavily on Sacred Deer remains present (is this his Barry Lyndon?), though again it feels as though Lanthimos is taking steps to let himself go a little. Still, it is a remarkably photographed film. Emma Stone in particular is the subject of a number of sustained, trapping close-ups, while an infrequent use of fish-eye lenses manages to stamp the film with a new kind of Lanthimos brand.
But here it is the performances that capture most rapturously. Seeing Olivia Coleman in a leading role like this is magnificent and so well earned. Her Queen Anne is a grotesque, but one we readily sympathise with, not least following a pragmatic speech that explains the seventeen rabbits she holds in hutches in her bed chambers. Stone is on ravishingly fine form – perhaps the best of her career thus far. Her Abigail is a conniving, ruthless and selfish creature, and it’ll be up to audiences to decide whether she remains worth rooting for as the film’s chapters progress. Regardless, Stone is clearly having the time of her life. And then there is Weisz, never anything less than a force to be reckoned with.
The dynamic between the three crackles from beginning to end, gaining surprising complexity along the way as motives become thornier. A few more conservative eyebrows will be raised, for sure. Good. Let people be irked by this crafty little feature; a rambunctious comedic exclamation mark on the blank page of prestige drama. Indeed, prestige of all kinds is in for a merciless thrashing, whether it be the country’s flip-flopping political stance (a pompous masculine affair that here is torn from side to side by feminine influence), or the very sophistication of high society itself (an indoor duck race may be the film’s most memorably fancy motif). In keeping with the times, male entitlement gets a good knee in the balls, too.
It’d all be pretty much perfection if it didn’t run out of steam before the final curtain. The third act flounders a little, and Lanthimos indulges himself where tightness would have been more welcome. Having nailed 90% of it, it comes to feel as though Davis and McNamara were not quite so confident in how to end the thing. The Favourite sort of flaps to a finish like a windsock in an intermittent breeze.
Still, the lion’s share of what is presented is up there with the director’s very best, and for those that share his dark turn of mind, this will provide several welcome belly laughs during these brief winter days. You may even find yourself ruminating on just what you’d do for power, and what you’d do for love…