Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Stars: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Nicholas Houkt, Joe Alwyn, Mark Gatiss, Jennifer White, James Smith.
With films like The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer to his credit, idiosyncratic Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos has become something of a critic’s favourite and a darling of the art house circuit. But his latest film, the arch and blackly comedic period piece/costume drama The Favourite is something of a change of pace, his most ambitious film to date, and, arguably, his most accessible.
The action mainly unfolds in the court of a dyspeptic, gout stricken and irascible Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, from Tyrannosaur, etc), who is often given over to histrionics. The increasingly ailing and mercurial queen is arguing with her parliament about the cost of waging war against France. She seeks advice from her trusted confidante (and secret lover) Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz, from The Lobster, etc). Lady Sarah’s husband is Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), a military commander staunchly in favour of the war. But Lady Sarah’s privileged position is about to be upended with the arrival of her coarse, unrefined and impoverished cousin Abigail (Oscar winner Emma Stone, from La-La Land, etc). Initially Abigail is assigned menial duties in the kitchen, but she soon inveigles her way into the inner sanctum of the queen. Soon the two women are engaged in a battle of wits and wiles to cement their favoured status and position of influence with the queen, and they use a range of psychological ploys and emotional weapons to achieve their aim and drive their rival packing.
Co-written by first time script writer Deborah Davis and Australian Tony McNamara (a veteran of the local television scene having worked on series such as Puberty Blues, The Secret Life Of Us, etc), The Favourite is set in the 18th century. But rather than making any claims to maintaining historical accuracy, The Favourite is an imaginative take on the period, the byzantine palace politics, an unusual romantic triangle, and a power struggle between three strong women.
As is to be expected with Lanthimos at the helm, this is no conventional period piece. He directs the offbeat material with his usual clinical, dead pan style, favouring close ups and long takes, and the film also explores many themes that recur throughout his filmography – paranoia, jealousy, desire, betrayal, use and abuse of power. But it seems to lack his usual misanthropic nature. The Favourite also reunites Lanthimos with two of his stars from The Lobster.
The dialogue crackles and McNamara gives us a plethora of bitchy one-liners which are delivered with relish by the top notch cast. This is Lanthimos’ third English language feature, and with its caustic put downs and vicious dialogue comes across like an 18th century All About Eve. Some of the language though is very contemporary sounding in tone, and is often quite frank with liberal use of the “c” and “f” word. But much of the dialogue is also cryptic with hidden meanings below the surface.
Colman makes the most of her juiciest role to date as the ailing and paranoid queen, but she also tempers the character with a hint of vulnerability and uncertainty. Colman stacked on some extra weight to play the pudgy, self-conscious monarch, and she inhabits the role completely. Both Weisz and Stone bring spirit to their performances as the conniving and manipulative rivals. Stone is in fine form as the ambitious Abigail, giving us arguably the best performance of her career to date, while Weisz makes the most of her acerbic Lady Sarah. Nicholas Hoult also makes an impression as the foppish and scurrilous Tory party leader Harley, who opposes the war and the taxes to support it, and he gets some of the best lines.
The film has been beautifully shot by cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Philomena, etc), who, clearly inspired by Kubrick’s visually gorgeous Barry Lyndon, uses natural light where possible. He also makes effective use of the fish eye lens in certain scenes. The sumptuous production design from Fiona Crombie (tv series Top Of The Lake, etc) brings to life the palace interiors, and exquisite costumes from Oscar winner Sandy Powell (The Young Victoria, Shakespeare In Love, etc) lend authenticity to the period piece. The soundtrack consists of carefully chosen classical selections that enhance the period aesthetic. This is no typically staid, dull period piece, but rather a rather enjoyable, outlandish and bawdy romp and black comedy of manners that should pick up lots of awards and broaden Lanthimos’ appeal.