As anyone who’s familiar with his previous work – The Lobster (2015), for example, or The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) – will know, Yorgos Lanthimos doesn’t do plausible. Defiantly outlandish stories, populated with characters who often converse in stilted, near-surreal dialogue, are more his mark.
Certificate 15 119m 20s
Director Yorgos Lanthimos
Queen Anne Olivia Colman
Abigail Masham née Hill Emma Stone
Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough Rachel Weisz
Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford, Earl Mortimer Nicholas Hoult
Colonel Samuel Masham Joe Alwyn
So he’s perhaps the last director one would expect to find working on a period costume drama featuring real historical figures. But The Favourite gratifyingly proves that Lanthimos can put his mordantly idiosyncratic stamp on even this staidest of genres. How many other historical costume dramas, for a start, would include the likes of ‘Wanking Man’, ‘Fastest Duck in the City’ and ‘Nude Pomegranate Tory’ in their cast-list?
In Elizabeth (1998) Shekhar Kapur brought a fascinated outsider’s eye to bear on the barbaric rituals and practices of the English royal court. Lanthimos seizes that alien viewpoint and ramps it up to 11. His take on Queen Anne’s court (largely filmed in the labyrinthine Jacobean splendour of Hatfield House in Hertfordshire) presents a ludicrously artificial society in a near-permanent state of quivering hysteria, riven with conspiracies, jealousies and bitchiness, the men rouged and powdered like drag-queens, everyone topped off with towering curly wigs the size of small dead sheep. Amusements are infantile: duck-races, or lobbing blood oranges at a naked fat man who giggles and clutches his genitals. Tantrums are thrown at the least provocation, not least by Anne herself in Olivia Colman’s touchingly absurd portrayal, which often suggests nothing so much as a giant wounded baby – lurching, gout-ridden, spoilt, self-pitying and desperately vulnerable. Much of her affection is lavished on her pet rabbits – 17 of them, one for each of her dead children. (Most were stillborn or died in infancy; one, a sickly boy, survived to age 11.)
Playing out like a baroque reworking of All About Eve (1950) – and sharing some of Mankiewicz’s acerbic Schadenfreude in that film – The Favourite rests on three outstanding female performances. Colman has never been better – which, given her increasingly impressive range, is saying quite something. Rachel Weisz makes a formidable Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, witty and dangerously controlled, her steely ambition for herself and her husband intermittently tempered by genuine compassion for the royal victim. Friends from childhood, they have petnames for each other, ‘Mrs Morley’ (Anne) and ‘Mrs Freeman’ (Sarah).
As the upstart Abigail Hill, Sarah’s cousin and eventual rival for the Queen’s favour, Emma Stone retraces, at a harsher angle, a similar trajectory to the one she followed in La La Land (2016), finding within herself growing reserves of ruthlessness and determination as she comes to realise how she needs to survive – and prosper – in this poisonous society pervaded by “veiled threats in the guise of civility”. Her treatment of her would-be suitor, Colonel Masham (Joe Alwyn), veers from amused contempt (both before and after their marriage) to retaliatory violence: when, coming across her in the woods, he attempts a more vigorous form of courtship, she repeatedly knees him in the balls.
The film draws on historical reality: Sarah Churchill was indeed the Queen’s favourite and possibly her lover, and was indeed supplanted in her affections by Abigail Masham, née Hill. Nonetheless Lanthimos and his screenwriter Tony McNamara (working from an original script by nonfiction author Deborah Davis, adapted from her five-part drama on BBC Radio 4) haven’t let themselves be in the least constrained by historical accuracy: the dialogue – and indeed some of the dancing and other elements – is blatantly anachronistic. “As an Australian and a Greek,” McNamara has commented, “Yorgos and I weren’t attached to English history, so maybe we felt more free to be fast and loose with it. There’s a fundamental truth to the big events and the big frame of the story, but we were mostly concerned with exploring these three women. So where the established history was useful to us it stayed, and where it wasn’t useful to us we let it go. It was quite fun to do.”
It’s quite fun to watch, too. Backed by a score that mixes often inflated arrangements of composers both contemporary (Handel, Purcell, Bach, Vivaldi) and less so (Schubert, Schumann, Messiaen) with strange insistent metallic sounds as if from an offscreen factory floor, with lavish use of Lanthimos’s trademark fisheye lenses, whip pans, dollies and the like, and looking, in terms of costume design and decor, nothing short of palatial, The Favourite offers rich, ribald, often lethally vicious period farce. Whether, as Lanthimos claims, the film “alludes to similar issues that we all can identify with or recognise in our everyday contemporary lives” is debatable; but for invigoratingly offbeat entertainment it’s a rare treat.