Review from the Movie Theatre: The Favourite

Released January 2019.


Believe the hype. The Favourite is pretty golden.

Aside from stand-out performances across the board, this is a brilliant film from camera work to costumes to cinematography to fantastic script. 

The film looks at Queen Anne, fleetingly Queen in the early 18th century, victim of countless personal tragedies and object of intense attention from close favourite Lady Sarah. Cue the entrance of a rival fawning female, Abigail, and there ensues a thrilling battle for highest standing with the Queen. But of course, when you’re vying for high position with the Queen Bee, prepare to be stung – perhaps not from the expected direction, but stung nonetheless…

Director Yorgos Lanthimos quickly envelops us in this world of luxury and high stakes. Panorama shots dominate and sweeping shifts in focus constantly emphasises scale and grandeur which is beautifully heightened by grand scoring (Historical Music William Lyons, Composer/ additional Music Johnnie Burn). All at odds with our infantile, wounded Queen and the dangerous vixens beneath her…

Writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara have gifted us something refreshing and strikingly unexpected. Early 18th Century England is depicted as surprisingly akin to the Sixth Form Common Room at the school of The Inbetweeners if the language, endless ribbing and tussling is anything to go by. We’ve seen and heard the now much discussed insights into the sex scenes between Olivia Colman and Emma Stone. But there’s little in the trailers and the publicity to indicate the surprising prominence of smutty discussions, laugh-out-loud bawdy one liners and a general sense of complete rejection of all the trappings of the familiar innocence of period dramas – particularly those centred around females. Their script is brilliantly left field and definitely high on the list of knock-out features in this film. I’ve been inappropriately quoting from it for days!

Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne is yet another example of how Colman transforms herself with each role. It’s a fearless performance which paints a powerful historical figure in all kinds of dramatic, unpleasant, tragic and ultimately unflattering hues. Queen Anne’s list of ailments grows over the course of the film, and Colman’s performance expertly communicates the depth of pain this woman was in and her emotional and mental pain is only marginally overshadowed by this incapacitating physical pain. There’s a desolation to the character which intensifies as Anne very very gradually becomes more aware of the workings of the office and the people surrounding her. All too late of course, and Colman’s performance inspires a complex combination of feelings towards this isolated woman surrounded on all sides. She is also absolutely hilarious in both understated and deeply dramatic ways – it’s a truly fantastic performance.

Lady Sarah is a beautifully brutal piece of work. Rachel Weisz makes her as ruthless as she is manipulative, also declaring fierce love and loyalty with remarkable credibility considering some of her actions. Lady Sarah tackles the dangerous task of half guiding, half controlling a powerful and unpredictable woman who can turn on a dime and whom she must always appease, without exception. The character is sharp in tongue and intent, giving way to some of the very best darkly comic moments in the film, but her intensity and sheer audacity really sell this performance, and it’s a brilliant performance from all sides.

Emma Stone laughs in the face of previous innocent characters, throwing herself into a deeply conflicted and dangerous character in the shape of Abigail. A down on her luck Lady in supremely reduced circumstances, she does what she must to claw her way up the ladder. It’s a kaleidoscopic role and performance as Stone forces us to understand what drives Abigail while also inspiring derision and deep disdain as her character is inevitably transformed along with her status. It’s difficult to find sympathy for her despite her history and plight once we’ve seen her shift in nature, but it nigh impossible not to identify with her determination to survive and her unshakeable mettle. Gripping.

There are actually men in this film. The most prominent of the men being batted away by influential women like Lady Sarah is Leader of the Opposition, Harley – played by Nicholas Hoult who is also brilliant. Desperate for power like so many others, Hoult dangles between begging at the feet of others and stampeding his way through obstacles to reach his goal. It’s not his attempts to dominate which win him his goals here though – the beauty is that the women are handlers, not those to be handled and taking his place as inferior to a master schemer proves to be the best decision of his life. 

James Smith’s Godolphin, leader of the party, is essentially Lady Sarah’s Wing Man, but he seems the most noble and principled of the bunch – even taking the most feeling of central roles in another nice departure from the norms of gender and periods drama laws. Stone’s Abigail must also have her male puppet of course, and he arrives as Masham, her key to security beyond her risky position in the Queen’s favour – played by Joe Alwyn. Masham is primarily a vehicle for comedy when it comes to Abigail, but Alwyn makes his mark as a man caught up in schemes in which he can only ever be a pawn – and that gives him great comic value all to himself.

We’ve been swept up in the whirlwind of Killing Eve this year so it’s easy to connect the two as departures from the norm in depicting female characters as ruthless villains or unlikeable to the extreme. But it’s been a while since the likes of Dangerous Liaisons and there are few other contemporary comparisons to make when it comes to period films placing three women centrally and making each of them so very deeply flawed but also so complex and thrilling to watch. It’s no stretch at all to understand the Oscar/ BAFTA buzz – this is gloriously refreshing material in a precarious and somewhat stagnant film climate for females. If only there were clear diversity in the mix – the film represents for  an array of marginalised groups but there are few people of colour cast, and that’s not to be overlooked in the current climate either. 

The film is a strangely delicious collection of oxymorons. The Queen holds all the power in the land, but she lacks control in so many ways it’s at times a tragedy to watch. The opulence of the surroundings (Fiona Crombie, Alice Felton) are entirely at odds with the crass (and hilarious) exchanges pervading the spaces. The restraint and elegance we expect to see straight jacketing our characters into respectability is merely fleeting – a thin veil over a House Of Cards style game of cat and mouse. 

Gorgeous women in ornate gowns (Sandy Powell) behave like feral lionesses. Purity of face so often equates to disloyal and vindictive actions. Grandstanding men prove flaccid without women to champion their cause. Grown men and women are difficult to detect beneath their petulant child proclamations and actions. Those seeking freedom end up caged in one way or another. Those seeking influence are cloaked in an invisibility they are incapable of detecting. 

And the whole thing is brilliantly entertaining.

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