The Favourite

REVIEW: Cat-fights in the Queens Court – Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone have pitiless fun in Yorgos Lanthimos’ bracing period comedy

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Greek absurdist Yorgos Lanthimos makes a characteristically idiosyncratic push for the mainstream in this bizarre period comedy.

Compared to his dystopian previous films, which include The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, it might seem at first that by swerving into that most genteel of genres, the period comedy, the usually pitiless director has lost his nerve. However it soon becomes apparent that The Favourite is every bit as abrasive and disconcerting as his other works.

Until now, Lanthimos’ films – which were all co-written by Efthymis Flippou – could be identified by their surreal plots and a curious device in which all the actors were directed to deliver their lines in a deadpan monotone, bleak humour being squeezed out of their somnambulant reactions to the increasingly bizarre or horrible things happening around them. Both elements have been abandoned in The Favourite, which comes from a script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, but the uncanny atmosphere remains.

Depending on your tolerance for provocation, The Favourite will either leave you captivated or screaming towards the exits

Based  – very loosely – on real historical events, the film takes place in the court of Queen Anne during the early 18th Century. Sarah (Rachel Weisz) is the Queen’s closest confidante and the real brains behind the throne. She is cruel and callous, not afraid to let Her Majesty know when she looks like a badger, but also ruthlessly capable, openly managing the court finances, and wielding huge political influence as she manipulates her master into keeping parliamentary party the Whigs – along with her husband, The Duke of Marlborough – in favour.

Into this world comes Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), a former Lady who has fallen on hard times. Sarah takes pity on the new arrival, taking her on as an assistant. Abigail appears to be temperamentally the opposite of her cousin, sweet natured and pious, but it soon becomes apparent that she has ambitions of her own and it is not long before a power struggle is under way between the two women for the affections of their Queen.

It may sound like a thousand other dreary costume dramas, but as with Lanthimos’ earlier films, the plot is little more than a skeleton upon which to hang his brand of weirdness and audience-baiting shock tactics. Depending on your tolerance for such provocation, The Favourite will either leave you captivated or screaming towards the exits.

Despite the chocolate-box set design, this is a bracingly coarse movie. It might hold the record for the most c-bombs ever featured in a film set before 1800. There are also lashings of sex, vomiting, violence and even a smattering of animal cruelty. It’s guaranteed to frighten off the Sunday evening drama set, but it may also be the most honest and accurate portrayal of how life was actually lived in the decadent Royal Court of the early 18th Century. At one point, reference is made to ‘that treacherous Jonathan Swift,’ and this is a film that, in its scabrous representation of idiots and manipulators at the seat of power, Jonathan Swift would almost certainly have approved.

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In contrast to the ugliness of the action, this is a beautiful film to look at. Stylistically, Lanthimos, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, has clearly taken inspiration (or stolen) from Stanley Kubrick. Barry Lyndon, naturally, is evoked in the gorgeous interior design, bathed in crepuscular candlelight, but the film’s closest antecedent is A Clockwork Orange, with which it shares a tendency to present every other shot in an extreme wide-angle lens, often distorting the picture so that rooms and even people bend in strange directions, lending the already queasy onscreen antics a further unsettling dimension.

This is a mean and sour film… but sour can be refreshing

In a chilly film in which horrible people do terrible things to each other, Olivia Colman manages to bring some much needed pathos and an air of tragedy to her role as the ailing Queen Anne. Spoilt, petulant and childish, she is also the only character to display any sense of vulnerability, and Colman shrouds her in a blanket of melancholy. She is at once all powerful and powerless, only dimly aware that the monsters she surrounds herself with are capable of crushing her like one of her beloved pet rabbits under an elegantly laced boot.

Of the supporting cast, Nicholas Hoult, who has carved out a niche for himself playing unpleasant characters, is amusingly pompous as the scheming leader of the Tory Party, Robert Harley. James Smith also stands out as Whig Prime Minister Godolphin and Mark Gatiss has a small (if perhaps slightly miscast) role as Sarah’s soldier husband.

The Favourite concludes on an ambiguous note (as if the audience hasn’t been baited enough). There are no real winners (‘I don’t even think we were playing the same game’ remarks one character after a particularly brutal exchange of revenge attacks). For a film so steeped in misanthropy, it at least appears to grudgingly concede that misanthropy will bring only unhappiness. Whether or not a film with such a message is your idea of a good night out will depend on personal taste. This is a mean and sour film, but in a era when cinema tends to err invariably towards the sweet, sour can be very refreshing.

This review first appeared in On: Yorkshire magazine