Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Talent: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult
Released: 1 January
By turns tender, hilarious and deeply unsettling, The Favourite finds Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos bringing his unique flavour of misanthropy to the English period drama.
The film opens with Queen Anne (Colman), a brittle monarch with little grasp on the war at hand, promising a palace to her right hand confidant, Sarah Churchill (Weisz). Though Anne is ostensibly the most powerful person in the country, she defers with almost childlike reverence to Sarah, who often berates her appearance and judgment under the guise of kindness. It seems that negging was around long before the modern pick-up artist.
Things soon change with the arrival of Sarah’s cousin, Abigail. Once a Lady with a capital L before her father gambled her away as a sex slave, Abigail arrives at the palace determined to regain her status. Being played by the disarming Emma Stone (sporting an impressive English accent), it’s not long before she’s fast friends with the Queen. Soon Sarah and Abigail find themselves competing over Anne’s affections.
Lanthimos has temporarily abandoned the monotone performances and pointed dialogue that populated his previous films to create something far more accessible. As a result, it naturally feels more human than the absurdist, metaphorical works he’s produced before.
That doesn’t mean that his trademark cynicism isn’t on show. The Favourite is a stark depiction of women searching for power within the confines of a patriarchal society. As the film progress, it soon becomes clear that Queen Anne is nothing more than a chess board for Sarah and Abigail to play their strategies upon.
The film has a bite and cruelty that make it distinct from many period dramas of the same ilk. That’s reflected in the camera work, which regularly employs whip pans and speedy dolly shots. Some of the camera tricks – like the wide fish-eyed lenses that distort the perspective of the rooms – seem like Lanthimos and his DP Robbie Ryan are trying a little too hard to show you that this isn’t your parents’ period drama, but it largely succeeds in creating a sharp, staccato rhythm that’s rare in the genre.
Though Weisz and Stone excel in their roles, it’s Olivia Colman who steals the show as Queen Anne. If you want an example of how finely tuned her performance is, consider the scene in which she vomits from eating too much cake, only to immediately start stuffing more in her gob. It’s darkly funny for sure, but there’s a look of such resignation and pain in her eyes that it doesn’t get the belly laugh it would in a weaker film.
Roger Ebert once said that movies were the most powerful aid to empathy, and there’s no finer example than Colman’s performance here, which had this Irishman’s heart aching for an unhinged English monarch. Anne is a lost child, desperately seeking validation at every turn, and despite her monstrous privilege and naiveté, the only character seeking anything beyond status. But that’s not to say that her entitlement doesn’t lead to some chilling temper tantrums.
Though it begins as a dark comedy about political ambition, The Favourite ends on more sinister terms. The palace, so huge and decadent in the early stages of the film, starts to feel claustrophobic, like a prison. Ultimately, these three women are trapped, doomed to debase one another in their search for power. Or in the case of Ann, for unconditional love.
Words: Jack O’Higgins