Yorgos Lanthimos returns to cinemas to provoke audiences once again with The Favourite, and here the auteur director turns his eye to the ravenous court of Queen Anne with a cinematic presentation that results in a devilishly jestful comedy of tension and suspense.
Early 18th century. England is at war with the French. Nevertheless, duck racing and pineapple eating are thriving. A frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) governs the country in her stead while tending to Anne’s ill health and mercurial temper. When a new servant Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah. Sarah takes Abigail under her wing and Abigail sees a chance at a return to her aristocratic roots. As the politics of war become quite time consuming for Sarah, Abigail steps into the breach to fill in as the Queen’s companion. Their burgeoning friendship gives her a chance to fulfil her ambitions and she will not let woman, man, politics or rabbit stand in her way.
Any time you see the mention of Yorgos Lanthimos you immediately sit up and take notice. Known for his provocative subject matter and masterful control of the cinematic craft, which saw its placement in previous works such as The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos now turns his guise to a thoroughly unique historical canvas for his latest project The Favourite. The result of his gaze is a tightly contained narrative of three tumultuous persons and their never-ending pursuit to one-up one another and control each others outcome.
Lanthimos’ ability to shock is still very much present in The Favourite, but whereas in the past he has focused on the horrors of the physical his attention now is placed to the minefield of the psyche and his characters need for acceptance. Never one to let a solid twist move past him, Lanthimos plots out his narrative with a script that is sharpened to a razors edge and pulls his audience back and forth at every single occasion. As a director, Lanthimos is completely focused on the project at hand and weaving every element of story and production together to bring forth this bizarre historical film, and he has the help of three wonderful performers to realise its nefarious characters.
If you thought Regina George was bad, well, she’s got nothing on Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough and rightful head bitch of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her sovereign lord who she treats little better than a pet or doormat. Played with a refined nastiness by Rachel Weisz, Lady Marlborough is far and away the most important figure in the Queen’s court and even though she is possessed of no formal position of power in the Queen’s England she is very much the governing force of it. While her husband, John Churchill, The Duke Of Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), a talented general is off waging war, Lady Marlborough makes it her duty to continue to set her Queen right, which invariably means improving her own station and making sure that her husband’s political agendas are never far from the Queen’s mind. She’s possessed of a fiercely controlling nature and as the Queen’s favourite, she has the run of the court and indeed the land. I can honestly not think of a similar role in which I have seen Weisz appear before and her command of this vindictively controlling woman is a frightfully scary performance. As an audience member, nothing can prepare you for what you will encounter up on screen with Weisz as Lady Marlborough and the scheming that follows will sit you up in your seat.
While Lady Marlborough may be the ultimate Queen Bee of Queen Anne’s court, a newer, younger, prettier lady soon arrives on its grounds in the form of Emma Stone’s Abigail Hill and when she does….the games begin. Stone’s Abigail is everything that Lady Marlborough is not in first appearance: kind, sweet, good-natured and unfortunately extremely poor and fallen far from her once regal status. But when she sees what’s on offer and that the key to power and wealth stem from the Queen’s attention she finds her cause and the knives come out. Stone’s shift from ingenue to nightmare is both gradual and swift at the same time and once she has her first taste of power her hunger becomes insatiable and she is soon all to willing to go to whatever ends necessary to ensure her own favour well above that of Lady Marlborough. The timeline of events that follow are both frightfully shocking and funny at the same time and Stone’s performance is most definitely stamped on your mind.
Finishing out this complicated trinity is Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, a sad, sickened and thoroughly tumultuous woman who inspires both a contemptible pity and hilarious giggling in the audiences thanks to her actions. While Colman’s Queen Anne may be anointed as Queen she has neither the stomach nor the interest in governing her lands, nor the grasp of how politically fragmented her nation is and is only content in servicing her own base needs and complicated emotions. Plagued by afflictions of both the body and the heart, Queen Anne is painfully needy and lavishes up the attention of both Lady Marlborough and Abigail which only incites them further in their actions to outdo one another. Surrounded by her own personal warren of rabbits, which come with their own sad story, the Queen is essentially a prisoner of her own court and is content with a daily regiment of dining parties and feasts that provide her fleeting moments of happiness before sending her into hateful depressions. As a performance its a brave one for Colman and she goes to a very different place in this role from all her previous characters before.
While the ladies of The Favourite are your focal point for this film, we also run into a pair of great performances from its male leads who include Nicolas Hoult and Joe Alwyn. Hoult presents us with the character of Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer, a pompous loutish politician who is the mortal enemy of Lady Marlborough and who is driven to extremes by the Queen’s waning disinterest in his political agenda. As Harley, Hoult gives a thoroughly savage performance and you always dread what he’s going to do next. Then there’s Joe Alwyn as Samuel Masham, 1st Baron Masham, the Queen’s Captain of the Horse who soon becomes a pawn in Abigail’s plan for power. Of all the character’s Alwyn’s Masham is the most normal and dignified of the lot, but eventually even he is not exempt from the degradations that come with court life.
The Favourite is a film that is wrapped in rich detail and as a cinematic experience, it is a visually delicious feast. Lanthimos has a team of like-minded and gifted collaborators to realise this extraordinary canvas up on screen. Production designer Fiona Crombie crafts a unique black and white colour palette that comes to weave its way in and out of the film, and her focus is on the grandeur of the Queen’s estate and the juxtaposition of intricate detail and negative space to pull in the audience’s attention. Matched with the production are the breathtaking costumes courtesy of Sandy Powell and she wraps her principle leads in a highly ornate and glamourous wardrobe that is inspired by the baroque paintings of the era. Powell pays attention to how costuming can convey a character’s sense of self and uses it to showcase the journeys and ultimate fortunes of the characters that we meet on screen.
Capturing the detail of The Favourite is the responsibility of cinematographer Robbie Ryan and whether its the grandeur of the Queen’s ballroom or the decrepit grime of the bowls of the scullery kitchens, all of it is presented and accounted for thanks to Ryan’s talented eye. Having honed his craft on indie darlings such as Fish Tank, Philomena and American Honey, he has a very unique taste for cinematography and The Favourite greatly benefits from it. His way of shooting is very much his own and here he does away with the usual Steadicam usage and instead captures the film through the use of wide angled and fish-eyed lenses for a distinctive look which makes the audience uneasy thanks to its implied voyeuristic elements. His use of natural light and heavy incorporation of candles into his shooting style also marks the film out as special and the sparing usage of a definitive light source pulls you deeper into the frames and the emotions of the characters.
The Favourite is a boldly original cinematic feat and audiences who embrace its eccentric story will be treated to a film that is outlandish, fiendish, dramatic, horrific and hysterical all at the same time and it’s one they should certainly savour every single moment of upon its release this Boxing Day.
Image: 20th Century Fox