Yorgos Lanthimos has almost certainly watched, and re-watched, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.
A profoundly cynical view of human nature? A cast of grasping social climbers, and a study of the ever-shifting (and cyclical) balance of power? That’s not to mention the aesthetic touches. Natural light conspicuously illuminates each scene, and shots from wide-angle lenses strand our characters in the midst of too-large bedchambers and dining halls at the heart of England’s power. The claustrophobic court of Queen Anne, in more than one scene, becomes a literal fishbowl. There are even fussy, oblique title cards introducing each chapter. If The Favourite is not entirely original in its portrait of a backstabbing 18th century scramble for power and favour, it borrows from the best.
The plot, adapted (freely) from a true slice of history, introduces us to the cosy relationship between the reigning Queen (Olivia Colman) and her friend/lover/adviser Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) – the favourite. This is disrupted by the arrival of Sarah’s distant cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone, whose mischievousness and wit have never been better deployed) as a domestic servant with eyes on the top spot. The ensuing fight for Anne’s affections, and a place in her bedchamber, is complicated by the political squabble in parliament over England’s war in France, in which all parties are playing off one another at all times. This secondary plot seems perfunctory, and rarely as interesting as the the love triangle (power struggle) which is the true engine of the film.
Sarah’s advantage lies in her years of experience and her natural cunning: the younger Abigail’s trump card is that she has nothing to lose. It’s a truly exciting battle of wits, in which one feels that the three players will stop at nothing to get what they want. The cast’s evident glee in portraying amoral characters, added to Lanthimos’ freewheeling energy, is dynamite. The soundtrack, chosen from modern and classical composers, never settles for the comfort of cliché. It’s as uneasy and tilted as the director’s Dogtooth and The Killing of a Sacred Deer were, but indulges in a few more winks to the audience. This shouldn’t be so much fun, it seems to ask us – but isn’t it just? Lanthimos, who has adeptly bottled the paranoia and alienation of our age in his other films, is practically letting his hair down here. This, in a film about bullying, drugging, exile and crippling gout.
This will almost certainly be the film which propels Olivia Colman to Oscar glory, and it’s deserved: there are no others who could so deftly embody the Queen’s capriciousness, spite and puerility without turning her into an out-and-out villain, which she is not. Elsewhere, I think The Favourite will not trouble the main contenders too much: it’s clearly a critical juggernaut, but maybe a little too strange to pick up a broader momentum: neither the black-comedy cult classic it could have been, nor a simple moral tale in period garb. That’s not to the film’s detriment. A woozy, excessive and nasty delight, The Favourite will keep audiences talking for years to come.