Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz vie for Olivia Colman’s affections in this erotic 18th century romp from Yorgos Lanthimos.
Are you someone who craves more hanky-panky from your period films? Have you long yearned to hear someone utter the phrase “cunt struck” in a lavish costume drama? Then strap yourself in for the latest high farce from Greek jester-in-chief Yorgos Lanthimos, a regal romp set in 18th century England that may just be the most absurdly entertaining thing he’s ever done.
Olivia Colman is on sublime form as Queen Anne, the beleaguered British monarch who reigned for 12 years from 1702 to 1714. Her life was plagued by heartache and ill health, and Lanthimos, Colman and screenwriter Deborah Davis play this for laughs to good effect by characterising her as a sickly, infantilised recluse – surrounded by people but desperately lonely, housebound and bored out of her wits, prone to childish outbursts and vulgar displays of wealth (in one scene she gorges on an enormous cake as a servant boy stands beside her, sick bucket at the ready).
When she’s not throwing tantrums or suffering debilitating attacks of gout, Anne shows little interest in the small matter of ruling the country, or the ongoing war with France which appears to have reached a tactical stalemate. She sits idly by as her strings are pulled every which way by Tory Prime Minister Sidney Godolphin (The Thick of It’s James Smith) and prominent Whig politician Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), a preening, foul-mouthed tyke with ideas above his station.
Rachel Weisz puts in a game shift as Sarah Churchill, aka Lady Marlborough, who refers to the Queen by the pet name Mrs Morley and effectively has the run of her official residence, Kensington Palace. As their close relationship and co-dependency are brought to the fore, Lanthimos indulges in a spot of (possible) historical revisionism and the film takes a left turn into romantic tragedy. Meanwhile, Lady Marlborough’s position is challenged by a pretty young maid named Abigail (Emma Stone), a lapsed aristocrat who arrives on the scene covered in muck but is soon scrubbed up and charming/shagging her way back up the social ladder.
The Favourite is a sort of Downton of the damned, where the power dynamic is constantly shifting and each key player shows signs of psychotic self-delusion. Everyone is looking to gain an advantage by whatever nefarious means they deem necessary, including but not limited to blackmail, treason, entrapment, collusion, poisoning and attempted murder. It’s also a film about the transformative and destructive nature of love, and the hurt people are capable of inflicting when jealousy and resentment take hold.
Natural lighting and frame-warping wide angle shots serve to heighten the surreal atmosphere while accentuating the obscene opulence of the setting. On a purely superficial level these stylistic choices call to mind Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and A Clockwork Orange, yet Lanthimos owes a greater debt to Peter Greenaway’s 1982 masterpiece The Draughtsman’s Contract and, to a lesser extent, Richard Lester’s irreverent take on The Three Muskateers from 1973. The main difference being that there isn’t quite as much going on here behind the painted faces and extravagant frocks.
As with Lanthimos’ previous English-language features, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Favourite boasts some memorable one-liners and a few outrageously funny moments, but there’s never the sense that the director is pushing himself, or that he’s ready to step outside of his comfort zone. His idiosyncratic style is an acquired taste that’s starting to go stale, and as such this is one of those films that works like a charm in the moment but whose spell quickly wears off. The last shot is a doozy though – a lingering close-up that reminds us who really has the upper hand in this whole sordid affair.
Published 30 Aug 2018