By this point, we’re pretty used to leaving our expectations of a Yorgos Lanthimos (‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’, ‘The Lobster’) film at the door. Whatever we think it’s going to be, you can almost always guarantee is not what we’re going to get - and in the best possible way. The satisfaction of completely submitting to whatever Lanthimos throws at you is immense, especially because, regardless of what he’s done before, each successive film feels unique, the voice of this singular artist carefully shifted to match the material. And so, imagine Lanthimos mucking about in 18th century England. It sounds so enticing, and my god, does ‘The Favourite’ deliver on this prospect in spectacular fashion.
Based on a true story, the film is set in the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, TV's 'The Crown' and 'Broadchurch', ‘Murder on the Orient Express’) and explores her complex relationship with close friend and lover Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz, ‘The Light Between Oceans’, ‘My Cousin Rachel’), who uses her power over Anne to preserve her position and make important decisions on matters of state. When Sarah’s cousin Abagail (Emma Stone, ‘La La Land’) arrives at the palace seeking employment, Sarah takes her under her wing. However, a new relationship begins to develop between Abagail and Anne, and Sarah’s position is suddenly under threat, causing Anne to become a pawn in a battle of dominance between two highly ambitious women.
Imagine if Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon’ had an epic night out, got totally smashed and pissed itself. That’s ‘The Favourite’. It looks like a proper Regency period piece, but explodes with mad-cap insanity, vicious wit, surreal hysteria and thunderous ambition. And the result is goddamn delicious. Working from a gloriously vicious screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara (there are take-downs in this film so stunning and so cutting, I was gasping, laughing and bleeding from them all at once), this is Lanthimos’ most accessible film so far, but that isn’t to say that it’s any less singular, ridiculous or bizarre. At every turn, the film shocks and surprises as these three women fight tooth and nail to defend their positions, either against the dominant male hierarchy or against themselves.
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Rather than dulling the effect with weighted melodrama, the film sharpens its teeth into a riotous comedy epic, where blood, sweat, piss, shit and words are weapons of destruction. ‘The Favourite’ is all about the power of women, the power they wield, the power they gain, the power they defend, and the power they lose. In a modern context Sarah and Abigail’s battle for survival would still be thrilling, but in the context of a social structure that denies women any power whatsoever, their actions are far more immediate and the stakes even higher, so much so that the consequences of their actions are even more clouded by their ambition, even the consequences on Anne. In Sarah and Abagail, the film has its two great combatants, and the great comedy (and subsequent tragedy) of ‘The Favourite’ is the degree to which they are willing to go. The world of ‘The Favourite’ is a battlefield where no truce or alliance can be trusted, where propriety crumbles at the prospect of victory, where gender becomes a secret weapon and where the height of your success only means further to fall.
Throwing every cliché of period dramas out the window, Lanthimos’ vision for the film is a glorious hodge-podge of contrast and conflict. Under the eye of cinematographer Robbie Ryan, the look of the film is gorgeous and rough-as-guts all at once, employing tricks like fish-eye lenses to distort our perspective and often amplify the high comic theatrics of the film. His framing is wondrous, complemented beautifully by Lanthimos’ regular editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis. There are cuts in this film that had me squealing with delight, razor-sharp and perfectly timed. Sandy Powell outdoes herself with her costume design, essentially reversing the gender stereotypes, with the men battling for bigger hair and more make-up and fancier clothes, while the women cut clear, crisp silhouettes, even costuming Sarah and Abagail in men's clothes, a stunning statement of gender subversion and power.
Lanthimos once again reminds us that there really is no director like him, assaulting the film with an irreverence and commitment to chaos that’s breathtaking to behold. One scene early on in particular demonstrates his extraordinary eye – we have one of the greatest dance scenes of all time, with Emma Stone and Joe Alwyn (‘Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk’) engaging in a bizarre combination of court dance and breakdance. It’s like something lifted from a Monty Python sketch and riotously funny, but in the midst of it, he rests on Anne’s face, and slowly we see her crumble, see her longing to participate and her crippling self-doubt tear her apart from the inside. That the film is able to turn from comedy to tragedy with such furious precision is proof of what a remarkable director Lanthimos is, and I doubt any other director could have pulled off the magic trick of this film.
Imagine if Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon’ had an epic night out, got totally smashed and pissed itself. That’s ‘The Favourite’.
The film’s secret weapon though is Queen Anne, especially in the hands of a genius like Olivia Colman. Compared to the sophistication of Sarah and Abigail, Anne is an unkempt, bilious toad of a woman, her inability to care for herself almost an act of defiance against her situation and its expectations. She is a woman trapped, a woman always trapped, and hidden amongst the histrionics of the film is her deeply moving realisation that she must break from her cage or die in it, mocked and babied and forgotten. All she wants is to be loved for who she is, for someone to hold her and tell her it will all be okay, but she must suffer as she is used and pulled apart by those she trusts. Colman’s performance is magnificent, a towering achievement of unrestrained comedy and unfathomable pathos. Like Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd, she turns every movement of her body into a comedy masterclass, and her voice a symphony of confused desperation. That she can have you screaming with laughter and break your heart seconds later is a tremendous achievement. We’ve always known of Colman’s greatness, but ‘The Favourite’ is the finest demonstration of it.
And yet, none of the other performances pale in comparison. After suffering through endless sup-par projects like ‘My Cousin Rachel’, Rachel Weisz soars as Sarah, revelling in how her perfect composed presence masks her magnificent and uncompromising skill at manipulation. Her presence in the film is mighty. Sarah comes ready for battle but Abagail must build her armour, and the way Emma Stone charts that journey is extraordinary. She arrives with such heart and sincerity, but the desperation to maintain her position poisons her soul, and Stone so beautifully captures the complexity of that transition. As a team, the combination of Colman, Weisz and Stone is utterly electrifying, and it’s breathtaking to watch them come together and tear each other apart. The men are also a delight, especially James Smith as Prime Minister Godolphin, Mark Gatiss as Sarah’s husband Lord Marlborough and Alwyn as Abagail’s love interest Lord Masham, but the great surprise of ‘The Favourite’ is how fucking amazing Nicholas Hoult is. As Opposition Leader Lord Harley, he almost steals the film. His performance is off-the-wall nuts and hilarious, showing a side of the actor no one could have seen coming.
There really is no way to prepare yourself for ‘The Favourite’. It’s insane and sincere, vicious and heartfelt, thunderous and mournful. No one, including the audience, comes out of this without bruises, but you hardly notice the bites it’s taking out of you because you’re laughing so much. Once again, Yorgos Lanthimos has subverted cinematic storytelling in the most delicious way, and delivered another unmissable event. And at its heart are three extraordinary female characters played by three extraordinary women at the absolute top of their game. At the last second and with only weeks to go, ‘The Favourite’ easily qualifies as one of the best films of the year. It’s delicious, decedent and completely intoxicating.