While The Favourite marks the first time director Yorgos Lanthimos has produced a film from his own pen, usually accompanied by Efthymis Filippou, fans of the Greek auteur’s oeuvre need fear not. Led by a trio of stellar performances, this is a tragicomic triumph every bit as deliriously barmy as the likes of Dogtooth and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It even features lobsters.
Said crustaceans appear when Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne, perhaps the least known of Britain’s female monarch’s past, calls for a race in the cause of her own amusement. This, as her country leaks blood and money into conflicts with France on the continent. At face value, then, Anne is one sandwich short of a picnic – and, as her weight and searing gout affirm, she’s had plenty of them. Leaving national affairs and governance to her confident, and secret lover, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), Anne is more at home with the seventeen rabbits she calls ‘the little ones’ than among the Whigs of Parliament. Yet, herein lies the heartbreaking truth. Each of Anne’s rabbits represents one of the seventeen children she lost in her life, some through miscarriage, others early ill health. As the Queen herself puts it: ‘Each one that dies, a little bit of you goes with them’. It is no wonder that she is so essentially absent; the boils on her legs are nothing on the wounds that burn within.
For all her barbarous asides to others – ‘Harley is a fopp and a prat and smells like a ninety-six year old French whore’s va ju ju’ – Sarah understands this and, it seems, genuinely loves the Queen – albeit, only as much as power itself. By contrast, into the fray comes Abigail Hill (Emma Stone, with perfectly clipped accent), Sarah’s younger cousin, who has fallen on hard times. In the film this is literally embodied by her ejection from a carriage to land face down in the mud outside Hampton Court Palace (here: a resplendent Hatfield House). Misjudging her relative, Sarah allows her to work in the Palace but it is not long before the status hungry Abigail has won a place by the Queen’s side and is ready to do battle for the role of royal favourite. She has the backing of MP Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), who hopes to use her to bend the ear of the Queen to his cause, while Sarah is the candidate of the more conservative Earl of Godolphin (James Smith). No man has any real impact here, however, as is brilliantly embodied by the way Lanthimos has his male characters lathered in absurd wigs, makeup and clothing. They, not the women, are set dressing: ‘A man must look pretty.’
Reversing the normative conditions of period drama cinema is a key concern of the film, which rejects lavish values for a dingier aesthetic. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan does sterling work in the desaturation of Lanthimos’ shots, taking his tones from the black and white chess board floor of the Great Hall, and the employment of surreal wide angles, which seem to force rooms to bend into the frame. The effect is to imply imprisonment but also does well to capture the script’s knowing allusions to ‘Alice in Wonderland’ – note the rabbits, Colman’s heart-shaped lips and throwaway line: ‘off with his head!’ Following suit, the film’s musical arrangement combines familiar strains by Bach, Handel and Schubert, with the decidedly off kilter, modern work of Luc Ferrari and Anne Meredith. It’s unsettling and puts you into a soundscape not so far from Aronofsky’s mother! in sensibility. Sequences such as that in which raw beef is placed upon Anne’s sores feel ritualistic and crueler strains sting hard.
This is also a very funny film. At one point Anne screams at a young servant ‘Are you looking at me?’ On discovering he was not, she insists he does so she might go on to roar ‘how dare you?’ Historian Deborah Davis first produced her script in the late nineties and it has since seen involvement from Australian screenwriter Tony McNamara. As such, it’s hard to tell from whom the wit originated but it could as well be Lanithimos in light of the inherent absurdity at play. Not one person his cast lets the side down, with each one rising to the challenge of hitting the many sly shifts between comic and tragic beats. It says much of the strength of Stone and Weisz that neither is left in the shadow of an imperious Colman, whose tremendous performance here would have rendered lesser stars surplus. Sandy Powell, who gowned Emily Blunt’s young Victoria, dresses all three impeccably.
Surprising at every turn, The Favourite finds an on-form Lanthimos delivering yet another sensationally disquieting feature. It will leave viewers emotionally scarred but creatively galvanised and maybe more conscious of the plight of a woman whose life was as fraught as her grip on power.