Yorgos Lanthimos is a unique film-maker, with a unique style that is sometimes tricky to get on with. His characters usually have a strange, disconnected dialogue, and they are alienated from any kind of real world, which means that they all seem like the same person. The experience is one of mild amusement, that is boosted by Yorgos’ fantastic eye for detail, and composition, however his films always feel as though they are missing something. I think he has discovered that something with The Favourite.
Set in early 18th century England, a weak Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) lays in bed, whilst members of parliament come and go to advise her on the war against France. Sometimes when they visit, she is too frail to see them, so her close friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) governs in her place. Sarah has to deal with the bickering between the Prime Minister Godolphin (James Smith) and leader of the opposition Harley (Nicholas Hoult). Quickly we see Sarah’s resilience and strength against them, with Weisz fierce biting tone. During these discussions on which tax to raise so that they can afford to keep fighting against the French, a new servant arrives – a young woman who has ‘fallen from grace’ after her father went mad, and burnt down their manor with his family still in it. Abigail (Emma Stone) rises through the ranks, and soon is promoted form servant to Sarah’s maid, where she can begin to closely interact with the Queen. They build a relationship that is different to the one Anne has with Sarah, and so jealously, and scheming starts to strife between the three of them.
The triangle is where the film is, and where Yorgos’ comes alive as a film-maker. He has loosened his grip on his style to allow the characters and actors to breathe. Each of them feels alive with their own strengths, weakness, desires and needs. Lady Sarah is controlling, and sharp – she understands the needs of the country, whilst worrying about her own husband (Mark Gatiss) going to war. Her relationship with Anne is loving, and their history is clear, but Sarah is often cruel to the Queen, being the only one not scared to put her down. Anne doesn’t need putting down any further, as she has an eating disorder, stuffing her face when she’s sad, and she’s in constant pain thanks to a serious gout infection. She relies on Sarah, but gets upset when Sarah is mean to her, consequently Abigail is a breath of fresh air for the Queen, and tells her exactly what she wants to hear, that she is still beautiful and respected. Stone’s character is someone who has had to learn how to survive, and there is an unmatched tenacious, persistent attitude to her. The way the three actors play them is superb, and their chemistries are strong but different. Colman and Stone coming together is about excitement, and fun, where Weisz coming together with Anne is about affection, and honesty. Yorgos frames them without showing off, and allows them to move, and act. He lets them act! Colman’s performance at first is almost a Sophie from Peep Show level of absolute disgust, then we learn that there is a deep sadness to her, and a particular scene with her and Stone in the middle of the film is totally heartbreaking. Weisz is tougher, and scarier, especially late on where her physical appearance changes, and her aggressiveness is personified. The standout is Stone, because she goes through so many different levels of emotion, and it’s not fully transparent how much of her is simple manipulation to get what she wants. She is transfixing when she is on the screen.
All of that lovely character stuff aside, the film is of course very funny. Yorgos has never had any trouble with humour, his 2015 film The Lobster wins you over because of the strange laughs. In this film, the script has more heart to it, and thus the humour is more joyous, and quotable. There is a scene where young suitor Masham (Joe Alwyn) is chasing Abigail around a woods, that is genuinely hilarious, but there are little lines throughout that will get you. A lot of this comes from the male characters in the film, because they are quite farcical. Nicholas Hoult is terrific as a golden scumbag, James Smith as the Prime Minister who is obsessed with his racing duck is amazing, if you are a fan of his portrayal of Glenn Cullen in the BBC comedy The Thick of It (his character in the film is great any way), and any Joe Alwyn – Emma Stone interaction was loads of fun.
The film in the end becomes less of a silly period comedy, and more compelling as view of where the characters are situated, sort of in the air of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) . There is a certain change in the scenery, and set up of power around the Queen by the final scene, and the gear down to this in the penultimate moments is completely engrossing. Even in the very last shot, where Yorgos is suddenly portraying a different message to the one pushed during the majority of the film, it is still very moving. The balance of comedy and drama is the line to sell when describing the success of the film, and you can’t argue with that. This is an accomplished piece of work, that will reap the rewards of time and repeat viewings.
Is it worth the price of a cinema ticket?
Yes! The film is split into sections, or chapters and it is worth going to see just for the one titled ‘What an outfit!’