The Favourite is very much of a piece with the works of Yorgos Lanthimos to date. It takes the limitations of its presumptive genre, and upends it at every possible turn, but always in a way that is precisely calculated and directed. This approach can leave audiences unsure of their footing, but it also ensures memorability. The Favourite is a difficult film to forget, for all the right reasons. To wit, the best period pieces tend to put on the wigs and bustle, and maintain their hauteur, all the while parading their own farce and rudeness for all to see. Thus, The Favourite gives us such unlikely sights as duck races, a game involving naked men being pelted with fruit, and Nicholas Hoult being genuinely, scene-stealingly funny.
The Favourite’s disdain for manners is reflected in its approach to its plot, taking a lightly (at least) fictionalised look at the intrigue within the court of Queen Anne circa 1710. Tracts from the time suggest that the monarch was often under the influence of her court ‘favourites’, not least Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough. The film is set during the War of the Spanish Succession, but Lanthimos and screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara make Anne’s court the real battlefield, where screaming personalities jostle for influence at all costs. Initially, the ‘favourite’ of the title would appear to be Rachel Weisz’s Sarah Churchill, as we see her playing confidante/babysitter to the gout-hobbled Anne (Olivia Colman). The queen gifts Sarah a palace, only for the latter to remind the former that war still rages, precluding such an extravagance. The relationship between the two seems to be understood in the mould of classic farce: a bumbling royal and her far more knowing aide. However, by the time the film ends, their roles will have shifted and reversed many times over, as an unexpected third party sashays in with every intent of holding sway.
Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives at court looking for work, but with a sly vendetta of her own. To say much more would be to spoil some surprises, but suffice it to say that Abigail horns in on Anne and Sarah’s relationship. Each of these women is refreshingly greedy, and never entirely likeable. Abigail, a distant cousin of Sarah’s, is of poor stock, and is determined that falling out of a carriage into the mud on her arrival at the palace is the last indignity she will suffer. These women are capable of both great love and cruelty to each other, but Lanthimos and the script never take a side in this twisted triangle. This makes it much easier to laugh when the revenge begins; indeed, laughter is the only option, such is the absurdity and selfishness that is perpetrated the central trio.
The Favourite unashamedly visits misery on its characters, but that’s nothing new for Lanthimos. His films are all about the physical and emotional violence his characters dish out when pushed too far. However, whether it’s because he didn’t write this one, or an influence of the period setting, this feature feels the most lively one he’s made yet. The insistent monotone of The Lobster or The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Both still excellent, by the way) is replaced with a certain mania. These characters find themselves shrinking in the middle of endless hallways and elevated ceilings. Thus, they shriek and lash out at the nearest government minister or servant boy. Lanthimos and his DoP Robbie Ryan make the utmost of their opulent settings at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. Shooting entirely in natural light, Ryan’s camera is riveted to the spot at the actors spit bile across the room in candlelight, before eagerly following them out cavernous doors and down chilly marbled halls. It’s visually riveting; for a sense of the look, imagine Wes Anderson directing a Peter Greenaway script. Ryan is aided by a elegant locale, neat production design and sumptuous costumes (If nothing else, Ryan and costumier Sandy Powell are award nomination shoo-ins).
The various twists, turns and backstabbings that provide The Favourite’s narrative drive would be nothing without three game actresses in the leads. Stone shows off a capacity for steely cruelty that’s a million miles removed from her turn in La La Land, while Weisz balances her authoritarian elegance with a willingness to be the butt of the joke. Best of the lot is Colman, whose Queen Anne is by turns bumbling and heartbreaking, as the film acknowledges the tragedies that befell her personally, as well as the awkwardness of her court, as the Torys and Whigs battle for shouty dominance. We’ve seen Colman move from the sidesplitting Peep Show to the likes of Tyrannosaur with shocking ease in the past; her blend of comedy and tragedy here should earn her the wider recognition she deserves. The supporting cast of bumbling politicians and would-be lovers includes Mark Gatiss, The Thick of It alumnus James Smith and the aforementioned Hoult, whose finance minister Harley boasts some sharp one-liners, and even sharper powdered wigs.
The Favourite fits surprisingly neatly into Lanthimos’ oeuvre, and is easily the Greek director’s most accessible film to date. It’s broad yet cutting, farcical yet sharp. Scholars may be riled by the way the characters and their relationships are treated here, but that’ll mean little to audiences who’ll be too busy laughing to care. As Weisz’s duchess observes, “Sometimes, a lady likes to have some fun.” Watching these ladies in their horrid actions, you will too.