This review was first published on 2 January 2019
Humour has always seeped into the deeply weird films of Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer). His line of work – portraying humans as the strange aliens we are – has so far led him more towards the psychological drama genre, but in new period piece The Favourite he goes full-force comedy. It’s still deranged and unsettling stuff, don’t worry, but there’s a rich, fatty vein of humour here, a flamboyant vulgarity that owes to the Restoration comics of the film’s period.
Olivia Colman is Queen Anne, a maudlin, largely bed-ridden monarch barely able to bathe and get dressed – not that she would ever lower herself to such behaviour. Rachel Weisz plays her dear friend, aide and confidante Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough. She serves as her queen’s proxy with parliament, and is incredibly close to her; let’s just say Sarah frequently has her hand in more than just the queen’s political affairs. Their partnership is disrupted by the arrival of Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), an opportunistic Lady fallen on hard times, who arrives at Anne’s palace in the hope of winning the queen over and restoring her own stature.
This is not your average period drama. The perception of the genre – not helped by the obsessive adaptation of Jane Austen novels – is that it’s genteel and inoffensive. But prudish The Favourite is not. First Earl of Oxford Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) declares his noble friend “completely c**tstruck” by the arrival of Abigail, and then the palace is awash with lascivious behaviour. We’ve been so conditioned to expect court/parlour intrigue dramas to be free of swearing and overt sexuality that the presence of both here feels almost anachronistic. But we forget that these periods were, in fact, as The Favourite depicts them: bawdy, bilious, ridden with gout and festering venereal diseases.
The film is an act of revisionism in some ways. Gender is also turned on its head, the three women at the centre of the film shooting guns, gorging on food and plotting each other’s demise while the men serve as eye candy – absurd, air-headed fops dressed in slender period garb complete with chalky makeup and voluminous wigs.
The script is sensational. The laugh rate is comparable to something like Airplane! – quite a feat for a period drama – and there are some wonderful putdowns, usually delivered by Weisz’s Sarah. “Friends of yours?” she asks when a muddy Abigail arrives surrounded by flies. “You’re really doing damage to the sky,” is the verdict on her duck hunting skills later.
Weisz, Colman and Stone are all on phenomenal form, with deadpan delivery that makes every exchange land. Stone wasn’t an obvious choice for a film by Lanthimos, but she meets the challenge admirably. Colman, meanwhile, is a tempest as the self-pitying Anne, looking on at joy and only seeing how much she’s missing. Colman already picked up an acting prize at Venice, but it is Weisz’s caustic and yet delicate performance that is the finest of the three for me.
Macabre and fraught though The Favourite gets, this isn’t so much a film about sex or power as it is about plain mischief. It’s a hilarious, buffoonish pleasure, right down to the sets and costume design, and a breeze to spend 120 minutes with. All hail Lanthimos’s finest, most consistent film yet.
The Favourite is released in UK cinemas on 23 November
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