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A trio of pitch-perfect performances from Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone drive Yorgos Lanthimos’s spiky period drama – a tragicomic tale of personal and political jealousy and intrigue in 18th-century England. Set in the court of Queen Anne (the last of the Stuart monarchs), it balances foreign wars with home-grown tussles in often uproarious and occasionally alarming fashion. Written by Deborah Davis (whose original script dates back to the late 90s) and Tony McNamara, this boasts razor-sharp dialogue which at times reminded me of Whit Stillman’s deliciously acerbic Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship – albeit with more sex and swearing.
Colman is Queen Anne, overweight and depressed, riddled with gout, and plagued by suicidal thoughts. An unconfident ruler, she relies upon the advice of her friend and lover Lady Sarah Churchill (Weisz, with whom Colman co-starred in Lanthimos’s The Lobster). Her bedchamber is filled with rabbits that she calls “the little ones”, and her sore-covered legs are in constant need of attention from the massaging hands of Sarah, who also tends to Anne’s other fleshly needs.
At Sarah’s bidding, the Queen is considering doubling land taxes to fund the war with France, in which Sarah’s husband, the Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatiss) is scoring victories. But Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult, a preposterously bewigged and painted hoot) leads a vociferous opposition demanding a peace treaty to “save money and lives”.
Into this enclave comes Abigail, (Emma Stone), Sarah’s penniless cousin who has “fallen far” (she arrives face down in the mud) and now seeks employment. With a blend of pity and misjudgment, Sarah sends Abigail to the palace scullery to earn a crust. But soon, the interloper has made her way into Anne’s bedchamber, where she soothes more than the Queen’s aching legs. “I like it when she puts her tongue inside me,” Anne teasingly tells Sarah, prompting a power struggle for the Queen’s attentions. Meanwhile, Harley closes in on Abigail, spying a route to the ear of the monarch who seems more interested in racing lobsters than running the country.
With its mix of corseted intrigue and lusty double-crossing, The Favourite occasionally resembles an unlikely mashup of Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract and the Wachowskis’ Bound, all beautifully dressed by the great Sandy Powell. Yet despite the nominally historical setting, this has none of the staid distance of a costume drama. On the contrary, it feels cruelly, deliciously contemporary, shot through with a sense of modernist absurdity that can be traced back to Greek director Lanthimos’s international break-through feature, Dogtooth.
That absurdist element is emphasised by Robbie Ryan’s cinematography, which uses wide-angle lenses to bend the corners of the world in a manner that is part dream, part nightmare. Prowling and floating from one unexpected vantage point to another, Ryan’s cameras offer a punch-drunk view of palace life, a hermetically sealed reality disconnected from a specific time and place. There’s a touch of Alice in Wonderland weirdness to Anne’s royal domain, as if we were peering down a rabbit hole. This bedchamber farce may have global consequences, but the wider world outside remains just that – outside.
Amid such strangeness, the central performances keep us grounded. Colman is simply superb as the miscast monarch, combining childish pathos with queenie cantankerousness, and a palpable sense of pain. Amid whisperings of tragedy, we learn that Anne grieves for 17 lost children (“Some were born as blood, some without breath, and some were with me a very brief time”). In one particularly moving scene, having become upset by the sight of children playing music, Anne grabs a baby from the arms of a courtier before almost collapsing in disoriented terror. For all Colman’s perfectly timed comedy, it’s these moments of Anne’s existential angst that really strike home.
As Sarah, Weisz is the embodiment of steely resolve, a fearless presence who keeps her enemies close, on the understanding that she may shoot them at any time. A scene in which she throws the contents of a bookshelf at the upstart Abigail is magnificently physical. Stone is excellent too, negotiating the shift between apparent innocence and determination with subtlety.
A soundtrack that lurches from the lush strains of Handel, Purcell and Vivaldi to the experimental edginess of Anna Meredith via Elton John’s harpsichord adds to the off-kilter atmosphere, keeping the audience on their toes – alert, unsettled, and hugely entertained.
Source: The Guardian
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