I never thought I’d say it, but this is the closest that Director Yorgos Lanthimos is ever likely to come to a fluffy rom-com. Dropping contemporary dystopia for 18th Century largesse, The Favourite is a sumptuous, star-studded lark that marks not only Lanthimos’ safest film but will very likely live on as a gateway drug into the director’s delectably sick oeuvre.
England, 18th Century. Britain’s at war with the French, the Whigs and Tories collide, and rampant debauchery is but a daily fare. Olivia Colman is the frail, veritably marbleless Queen Anne, who’s currently engaged with the issue of financing the war. Pained, gouty and wont to explosive outbursts, Anne shares a close friendship with Lady of the Bedchamber, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), with whom she spends fond mornings racing wild ducks and gorging on pineapple.
Whether or not the feeling is mutual, is undecided; though Weisz’s matriarchal Sarah Churchill is certainly warm to the dopish Queen, she’s very aware of her role as a trusted adviser; a place she takes pleasure in exercising to run the country while Anne’s off tormenting her flunkies.
Meanwhile, Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) has been stripped of her aristocratic standing thanks to her defamed father and now seeks work as a royal scullery maid. Churchill – naively sensing meekness – is enamoured by the girl’s charm, and promotes her on the assumption that she’ll be thankful. She will, but in a way that may very well end up inciting Churchill’s doom.
Weisz succeeds effortlessly as the formidable, but perceptibly fragile Sarah Churchill, which is to be expected after her previous work with Lanthimos on The Lobster, and Emma Stone truly stands out as the usurping Baroness Masham. Eyeing Anne like carrion, Abigail worms her way back into the aristocratic high life, giving way to a violent power-play between herself and the equally conspiring Churchill as they compete for the Queen’s favour.
I had come to The Favourite expecting something of an Olivia Colman vehicle. Aside from my being of the belief that Colman’s Oscar cred has been long overdue, the trailer seems to frame her as its crowned jewel. To be sure, she’s marvellous as the ermine-wrapped five-year-old that is Queen Anne; taking her puppy-eyed performance in Channel 4’s Flowers to the height of despotic hysteria, and with a comedic command that doesn’t surprise in the least.
But she’s the essential centre of the film’s main strength as an ensemble powerhouse. She, Stone, and Weisz are as grotesque, ridiculous and (ultimately) fragile as each other – so much so that it becomes impossible not to sympathise with their desperate desires to be she who steps, as opposed to she who is stepped on. Even Nicholas Holt – as the plankish Robert Harley – is a driving force, albeit mostly for his attempts to be as linguistically vulgar as possible.
Indeed, without it, I can’t see The Favourite offering much more than a baroque showpiece.
The long mahogany panels, the caramelly lighting, the positively absurd costumes (by god, the wigs), all work to parody the extravagance so lightly veiling a morally depraved social hierarchy. The familiar Lanthimos flourishes – the fisheye lenses and saturated crossfades – are also present, but they’re distanced enough from characters and plot to give the impression of stylistic reminders. The dark, satirical tone running through the entire thing is strong enough to confirm the identity of its director.
But those are pretty passing distractions to how ludicrously entertaining The Favourite is. Though its comparatively chaste portrayal of corruptive power surprises in the wake of Dogtooth and The Lobster, there’s much to admire about its accessibility. Though certainly not to the extent of filmmakers like Gaspar Noe, Lanthimos is still one of the more divisive figures in mainstream cinema. With The Favourite, he might very well reach something close to mainstream appeal.