The Favourite

Posted: January 16, 2019 in Film reviews
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Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz and Nicholas Hoult.

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Not bad for someone who used to be a contestant on Numberwang!

It’s 1708 and Queen Anne (Colman) sits on the British throne. Britain is at war with France but Anne, crippled by gout and despair over multiple miscarriages and the deaths of every child she’s managed to bring to term, has no interest in ruling, so this is left to her friend and adviser, Sarah Churchill (Weisz) the wife of the Duke of Marlborough (an underused Mark Gatiss)  whose husband is leading the battle in France. Sarah is more than a friend to Anne, because secretly she’s also her lover, however she treats her poorly. Sarah spars constantly with the Tory leader of the opposition, Robert Harley (Hoult) who objects to the punitive taxes levied to pay for the war.

Into the household comes Abigail Hill (Stone) Sarah’s cousin who’s in disgrace after her father lost the family fortune. Sarah gets Abigail a menial job as a scullery maid, but when she manages to soothe Anne’s gout she is elevated to become one of the Queen’s servants. All too soon Abigail is using her proximity to the Queen to try and supplant Sarah as Anne’s favourite, and the stage is set for a tussle for the Queen’s affections that could have far reaching ramifications for the future of Britain.

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“You’re my favourite.” “No, you’re my favourite!”

A Britain riven with political turmoil, divided over how to deal with Europe…but enough about Brexit, I really want to talk about the Favourite.

There was a time when period dramas were stuffy affairs, there’s nothing stuffy about Lanthimos’ saucy tale of 18th Century oneupwomanship, a snarky, bawdy, hilarious, heart-breaking and lavish feast that revolves around three fantastic performances. You’ll hear a lot of hype about how good Colman, Weisz and Stone are, and let me just clarify that every single superlative is justified, and if at least one of them doesn’t run away with an Oscar there’s no justice.

I think like most Brits, Queen Anne isn’t a monarch I was taught a lot about at school, in fact the first thing that the name conjures up for me is furniture (Queen Anne table etc) yet in Colman’s hands she proves a fascinating character to base a film around. Liberties may have taken with history (there’s no evidence she kept 17 rabbits, and not much to suggest she had same sex relationships) but the pain at the heart of Colman’s performance is all too genuine, given Anne really did lose 17 children to miscarriage, still birth and, perhaps most tragically, a son when he was just 11, and as a visual metaphor for that loss the rabbits  work perfectly, and in fact sum up the film which balances the surreal with the all too real.

There’s a preposterousness to the film that’s intoxicating, with bewigged gentleman indulging in duck racing or pomegranate chucking whilst the women behind the scenes pull the levers of power.

Colman is excellent as the queen, befuddled and almost childlike one moment, capricious and jealous the next, easily led yet capable, on occasion, of sharp intellect. In more than one scene she goes from joy to rage in the space of a few moments whilst the camera lingers on Colman’s nuanced expression.

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“Stand and deliver! I’ll take that Oscar please!”

As Sarah, Weisz is wonderfully cold and snide, sniping at Anne at every opportunity, albeit in a curiously loving way, and it’s testament to her portrayal that a character we initially find ourselves disliking, will eventually come to appear more sympathetic, and the change is completely earned. It’s also completely clear that Anne and Sarah are in love, even if that love manifests in some decidedly unloving behaviour on occasion.

This leaves Stone as the ingenue Abigail, the final corner of this painful triangle, and whose performance shouldn’t be underestimated because she’s every bit as powerful as her co-stars, and much like Weisz she engenders one feeling from the audience upon meeting her, yet slowly changes as the film progresses.

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“When they said lady in waiting they weren’t kidding were they?”

All three are roundedcharacters; flawed, manipulative, downright nasty on occasion, yet feel completely real, with a reason behind each aspect of their personality, even if on occasion it’s simply the fact of being women in a man’s world. In many ways none of them are nice, and that’s so bloody refreshing.

As the male of note Hoult gives as good as he gets, giving a wonderfully spikey performance that bounces well, especially off Stone and Weisz, and his comic timing is spot on.

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“Okay I may have overdone things a little.”

Lanthimos’ direction paints the royal court as a curiously surreal bubble, yet his camera trickery never distracts from the characters at the heart of the story and he makes great use of long shots down corridors, even corridors whose walls are composed of flaming torches, and cavernous rooms, suggesting that, even when they’re with other people, each of these women is alone, cut off by their own pain or lust for power. The script is wonderfully acerbic, providing a whole heap of wince inducing laughs, because this is a very funny film, even in its more tender moments.

The costumes and cinematography are wonderful, in particular you have to love Weisz’s highwayman’eque shooting outfit, and it’s nice to see such a rich use of darkness, because at that time the world likely would have been a dark place much of the time, plenty of shadows to hide a multitude of sins within.

It’s a tad too long, and the music is somewhat intrusive at times, but any flaws are miniscule compared to the film’s strengths. Admittedly I’ve only seen two films so far in 2019, but for the moment this one is definitely my favourite!

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“Drop that Oscar, Rachel!”

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