Court is in session in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, a spectacular re-dressing of the period costume drama and savage comedy of manners about people who barely have any.
It’s early 18th century England in Queen Anne’s palace. Off-screen, over on the mainland there’s a war with France to fund (there was always a war with France), but home is where the real hostilities are flaring up. Upstart crow Abigail Hill (Emma Stone at her most compelling) is the ruthless social climber cousin of the reigning royal favourite Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), the Cheney-like whisperer who basically runs the country for the distracted, unstable Anne (Olivia Colman). Both hero and villain, Abigail is a former lady fallen on hard times, reduced to pan-washing toil in the cramped servants’ quarters. Armed only with guile and a sharp nose for opportunity, Abigail immediately disrupts and complicates the eroto-maternal dynamics of Sarah and Anne, her sharp elbows leaving black eyes as she grabs for her chance at class security.
The Favourite is populated by ugly people behaving outrageously in beautiful rooms. The film is lavish and sparkling in its Restoration design and costume work, the pristine aesthetics enhancing the location’s otherworldly bubble effect: cut off from the population at large and unable to manage their own neuroses, the royal monarch and those in her orbit are unravelling, an unreal vision of a syphilitic aristocracy, their surreal eccentricities captured in classic Lanthimos slow-mo photography.
Colman’s Anne is a sloshing soup of emotional dysfunction; lonely and depressed, bereaved and alienated, reduced by time, privilege and co-dependency to a state of infantile emotional incontinence. A nasty case of leg gout confirms it: she is literally rotting away. Colman is fantastic, and her essential likability helps bring out the pathos of Anne’s position. Weird sympathies emerge for the film’s ridiculous figures: Weisz, for all her abusive steel, seems genuinely concerned with practical matters of the state and its health. The illicit affectation between the two, abusive, toxic and marriage of convenience as it is, marks something real in its own way, and its rupture comes at a genuine emotional cost.
Both The Lobster and The Killing of A Sacred Deer wrapped its characters in a pale detachment, but Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s switchblade script (Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou are off writing duties for once) means the director finally sets his performers free. If, in his recent work, characters behaved like weird simulacrums of actual people, here they are human, all too human, full of irrational passions, running into eachother with the knockabout physicality of a school playground. They slap and grab and push girls into the mud. Social advancement is a contact sport, a Punch and Judy game of romper room foppery.
The much-lauded The Lobster was funny in a sort of abstract “yes, I understand the satirical point being made” way. But The Favourite is actually funny, in marvellous, unpredictable ways, throwing up dirty little pearls of lines. The pettiness is pure wonder; Nicholas Hoult in a powdered wig throwing a hissy fit is glorious piece of cinema to kick the year off.
Lanthimos’ film-making has been so dry it leaves you parched. But The Favourite is high-fructose entertainment; a banquet table stuffed with treats from all corners of the Commonwealth. It is so, so delicious. Conor Smyth
The Favourite is out on wide release.