The Favourite (Cert 15)
1 Disc DVD/Blu-ray (Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) Running Time: 120 minutes approx.
If you’re going to do a modern update of All About Eve then you might as well set it in 18th century England if that makes sense. If it does, you’ve clearly seen the previous films from Greek provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos – if not, this subversive Oscar winning black comedy will be a beguiling experience for you.
1708 and Britain is at war with France. Reigning monarch Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is frail, suffering from gout and depression, showing little interest in her political duties, delegating this to her confidante and childhood friend Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). This leaves Sarah to effective rule the country by proxy, which is to her advantage as it benefits her husband (Mark Gattis) manipulating Anne to pass her own bills.
Arriving at the palace as the new maid is Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), cousin of Sarah and former member of the aristocracy until her family fell on hard times. Initially a scullery maid, Abigail ingratiates herself to Anne by helping soothe her gout, which makes Sarah jealous, forcing her to promote Abigail to her own personal maid. But Abigail has plans to regain her erstwhile social status and getting Sarah away from Anne is part of that plan.
The Favourite is one of those films that is easily described but difficult to define – it’s a lush historical drama or it’s Jane Austen as interpreted by Ken Russell, but is it arthouse masquerading as mainstream cinema or a maverick auteur working with a bigger budget and A-list cast? It’s actually all of these things but unique enough that audiences will find their own rewards and draw their own conclusions about it.
Lanthimos has achieved something quite remarkable here, adhering to every convention and principle of the period drama milieu yet presents us with something that feels very contemporary in attitude, a sort of punk rock version of The Crown if you will. This isn’t limited to the use of modern profanity (the “f” and “c” words are regularly heard) or the bold sexual content, but its innate vitality and abrasive edge creates a rebellious aura.
Despite the period setting the three main leads are strong feminist characters who have men relying on them and not the other way round, conflicting with the usual depiction of the chaste playthings of the patriarchy. Queen Anne only has regard for Sarah’s opinion and has no interest in men as a life partner; Sarah dresses in male-influenced attire to illustrate her steely resolve and assumption of the male advisor role to Anne.
Sarah also has the Prime Minister Godolphin (James Smith) dependant on her to get his pernicious policies ratified which gives him leverage over the anti-war leader of the opposition Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult). Harley notices Abigail’s ascension in the ranks of the royal household and proposes she relays any vital information regarding Sarah’s malfeasance to him to strengthen his hand, even sending his friend Baron Masham (Joe Alwyn) to seduce her, getting a kick in the nuts for his trouble!
Everyone has an agenda and they involve the Queen bending to their wills which isn’t as easy as it seems since her addled mind proves both an advantage and disadvantage. As soon as Sarah has Anne singing from her songbook, Abigail’s tender touch sways her in the opposite direction, moving Abigail closer to regaining her lost status which Sarah is very wary of.
Yet both fall foul of Anne’s caprice as even in a state of confusion, she can still make her own mind up, regardless of whether it makes sense of not, and her word is absolute. The mind games that unfold are as ingenious as any psychological thriller, obscured only by the period setting whilst keeping the pendulum of gain swinging both ways until the very end, even teasing us that there may not be any winners at all.
The script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara not only tells a compelling story based on real historical figures and events but bristles with sharp dialogue that skilfully blends the poetic speak of the era with acerbic epigrams laced of modern vitriol. However, there are no anachronism here (except maybe the profanity) and even the darkest satire has a valid place, be it the verbal barbs or a totally modern dance routine set to the strains of a vapid chamber quartet.
Via Robbie Ryan’s cinematography and the unusual choice of a wide angle fish eye lens, the journey through the halls of the royal residence is a near hallucinatory experience, the continually moving camera following the cast an surveying the rooms as if it was our own inquisitive eye. This creates a unique spatial sensation that both immerses and disorientates the viewer but the meticulously designed sets and stunning costumes are a worthy reward.
Lanthimos may have Hollywood backing now but he still has a mischievous way about his direction that doesn’t belie his quirky traits that surface in his narratives. This film is no different; the untrained eye won’t be aware of how subversive he is being here – from Anne’s fragile quirks to Sarah’s assured dominance and Abigail’s sexual manipulation – using the story to have fun with the period setting whilst staying true to its diegesis.
With this film cleaning up at this year’s Oscars and everywhere else, Olivia Colman was routinely named Best Actress, and it is a truly magnificent, challenging, multi-layered performance that words can’t do justice. But this isn’t a one-woman show – Rachel Weisz is a pitch perfect as the conniving and calculating Sarah and Emma Stone, who has never really impressed me, delivers a career best turn as Abigail.
Regardless of how successful his films become, Lanthimos will always be an acquired taste but if The Favourite is any indicator, he has found a way to make his esoteric style more palatable for mass appeal without compromising his integrity. An astounding film that proves cinema can be artistic and entertaining.
English Language 5.1 DTS-HD MA
English Descriptive Audio 5.1
French, Spanish, Russian, Italian, Chinese, German, Ukranian Language 5.1
English HOH Subtitles
French, Spanish, Russian, Italian, Chinese, German, Ukranian, Dutch, Finnish, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Vietnamese Subtitles
The Favourite: Unstitching The Costume Drama
Rating – **** ½
Man In Black