I love my conventional period costume dramas, but sometimes it’s nice to see a different take on the genre, and this deeply eccentric and sweary film hits the spot.
The Favourite is not anywhere as mannered or wilfully alienating as The Lobster, the only other film by Yorgos Lanthimos I’ve watched to date, an absurdist dystopia that I found both fascinating and immensely grating. But it still feels like it sprung from the same idiosyncratic mind, with an offbeat tone and quirky visual style that leans heavily on fisheye lens and rich monochrome colour palette.
In this movie, Lanthimos turns his eye to Queen Anne, a lesser-known English monarch who until now didn’t seem to feature much in popular culture (unlike a certain red-haired Virgin Queen). As played by Olivia Colman, Anne is a creature both tragic and ridiculous: insecure, childlike, plagued by illnesses, with a mercurial temper and a collection of seventeen rabbits for each of her seventeen lost pregnancies and dead children. The real power behind the throne is Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), the Queen’s trusted childhood friend and lover, a formidable woman who is equally skilled at managing Anne’s fluctuating moods and navigating the court politics. The royal order is soon disturbed by the arrival of Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah’s impoverished cousin, who humbly accepts a position as a servant but secretly dreams of restoring herself back to aristocratic glory and financial security.
What follows is a very entertaining, witty and deliciously nasty contest for the affections of the Queen between the old and the new, a bit like All About Eve as written by Jane Austen in a particularly dark and perverse mood. Abigail at first is easy to sympathise with, given her desperate position, but her wide-eyed ingénue facade hides an ambitious and manipulative streak. Though her machinations start off as fairly innocent, soon enough she has to decide how dirty she is prepared to fight to get what she wants. There are no heroes or truly likeable characters here, but all three women have their desperate, humanising moments, and one gets a feeling that the real villain is the oppressive cage of gender and class divisions. This complicated triangle of affection, jealousy, control and treachery is a joy to watch.
The Favourite would never have worked without assured direction and pitch-perfect performances, and the three female leads deliver marvellously. Emma Stone is especially impressive in a role that’s more raw and challenging than any other film I’ve seen her in. Of the supporting cast, Nicholas Hoult is a very nice surprise, cast against the type as a conniving politician in a gloriously fluffy wig. I’m so used to him playing characters who are on the nerdy/awkward side, it was refreshing to watch him in a more assertive, charismatic role.