Coming from the fascinating mind of Greek director, Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), The Favourite follows the politics and power plays occurring behind-the-scenes, during the reign of the sickly and unpredictable Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Set during the early 18th century, we find England at war with France, not that you can tell from observing the day-to-day activities of court; duck racing (#TeamHoratio), pineapple eating, and parties are the norm. Meanwhile the Queen, suffering from gout, depression and suicidal thoughts, relies greatly on the advice of Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), her informer, confidante, and lover. As a result, the country is effectively ruled by Lady Sarah, in the Queen’s stead, to the frustration of the leader of the Opposition, MP and influential landowner, Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult). It is into this environment that Lady Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone) enters, quickly ingratiating herself into the Queen’s life, as she attempts to return to her aristocratic roots, at the expense of her cousin’s position.
My first experience with the work of Yorgos Lanthimos was during the NZ International Film Festival in 2017, with The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a psychological thriller that gave me a crash course in the idiosyncrasies of this much-talked-about director. Off-kilter, yet delightful, The Favourite is fantastic historical period comedy-drama, that continues to pave the road for Yorgos’ journey into the limelight. Indeed, I’m sure there will be some Yorgos fans who may be somewhat disappointed with how comparatively “normal” (read: emotive) his characters behave in this film. I would say though, that it works to the film’s benefit, particularly in allowing more mainstream audiences an entry point into Yorgos’ filmography.
The film seems to delight in bringing Yorgos’ signature weirdness to the stuffy English courts of your typical period films. The script is witty and biting, with the language remaining (I assume) of the era, yet often snarky. Characters bite each other’s heads off the second a moment of weakness is shown, before returning to their respective scheme(s). The Machiavellian nature of the film is complicated further by the film’s central love triangle between Anne, Sarah and Abigail. These women’s struggle for control over one another can shift from dark and calculating to affectionate and tender so easily, and watching the actors bounce off one another is truly wonderful to behold. Each actor brings something to the table, with Weisz’s seemingly cold and practical Lady Sarah, comfortable in her position, but not afraid to defend it; Stone’s initially honourable and optimistic Abigail, forced to succumb and allow the inherent selfishness encouraged by court to take hold to succeed in her pursuit of power; and finally, Colman’s stunning portrayal of Queen Anne. Weisz and Stone both equally deserve any awards nominations/victories they get this season, but for my money, Colman edges just slightly ahead of them. To paraphrase Colman herself, the role of Queen Anne let her portray virtually every conceivable emotion in one film, and she does not disappoint. Colman portrays Anne as a woman tormented, supported in no small part by Lady Sarah (and later, Abigail as well), as she barely keeps her demons at arm’s length, slipping between madness and reality with reckless abandon, all while she is constantly pressured by the very position that so many covet. Off to the side, there is little to report from the supporting cast, with the notable exception of Nicholas Hoult as Robert Harley, who is wonderfully, shamelessly slimy as the leader of the Opposition, determined to find his own way to the Queen’s ear, regardless of who he has to cajole or stab in the back to get there.
In terms of historical accuracy, the film’s script seemed to throw caution to the wind, choosing to focus on what would benefit the film, over any strict adherence to what actually happened. This gives the film room to breathe, and it feels far more relaxed in comparison to other films set in the same era. This also means that Yorgos’ various oddities and idiosyncrasies are able to shine, particularly through the film’s score and cinematography. The former, is as deranged as its aristocratic cast, which shifts from period-appropriate to uncomfortable, scraping violins. Outstanding in its own right though is the DP, Robbie Ryan’s, surreal cinematography, positioning the camera outside of traditional, stately expectations of the genre. Placed on the floor, or high above, the camera shows off the immaculate (although again, not necessarily period accurate) set design and costumes. The use of wide angle lenses also works to distort the image, creating a spherical border to the frame enhancing the aforementioned Alice in Wonderland-esque dreamlike quality.
Overcoming the usual limitations of the period drama genre, The Favourite shines bright, as both dark comedy and tragic drama, pulling you into its ostentatious world as you are forced to bear witness to the bizarre (yet believable) political and personal power struggles at play. Even better is that The Favourite pulls this off, all whilst looking at mental illness, the dangers political favouritism, homosexuality, grief, and the positioning of women within society. The effects of these on our central characters are what ultimately fuel the film’s inevitable tragedy, all culminating in one of the more interesting endings that will certainly leave audiences guessing for some time.