FILM REVIEW: The Favourite

WORDS BY ELLEN ROGERSON

4/5

Break out your finest wigs and corsets, Yorgos Lanthimos has resurrected period dramas. Typically I tend to stay away from period dramas, my only exceptions being the 1995 TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and some of Kenneth Branagh’s catalogue of Shakespearean retellings, because the plots tend to be a little contrived and the characters feel like they fall into the uncanny valley. The Favourite, however, obliterated my preconceived notations. Set in the 18th century, The Favourite follows a semi-fictional reimagining of the relationship between Sarah Churchill, Queen Anne’s closest advisor and lover, and Abigail Hill, a new servant who has fallen from higher standings, as they wage an uncourtly battle against each other to maintain the affections of an ailing and unstable Queen Anne. Set to a soundtrack of Bach, Vivaldi, and Schubert, this tragicomedy is absurd, bawdy and a much-needed breath of fresh air.

Lanthimos’ is widely known for his penchant for the offbeat and absurd, so in comparison to his previous works The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Favourite is a little easier on the palate but would still make an excellent introduction to his films for the uninitiated. That’s not to say The Favourite is an easy viewing – far from it. It’s highly visceral, filled with sex, blood, vomit, poison, and violence. It’s clear Lanthimos loves to make his audiences squirm from watching a scene wherein Queen Anne painfully vomit into an ornate vase before taking a messy bite of sky blue cake.

The cinematography also loves to play with the unexpected. Helmed by Robbie Ryan, it is sprinkled with beautiful visual oddities such as lighting fast pans (achieved without the use of a Steadicam, may I add), dolly shots, fisheye, and wide shot lenses. Some of these choices may feel gimmicky if highly stylised cinematography isn’t your thing but I found it enhanced The Favourites punk-infused rebellion against the powdery Merchant-Ivory films of the ’80s and ’90s, which so frequently come to mind when someone mentions ‘period drama’.

As well as adding to the films off-kilter rhythm, it allows the characters to be dwarfed by the palace, which reveals their more vulnerable moments in such an isolating environment  While it is undoubtedly that The Favourites mise en scène is rich and luxurious, thanks to the work of production designer Fiona Crombie and costume designer Sandy Powell who filled each shot with pearls, heavy velvet, mahogany, intricate tapestries, and towering wigs, the three little gems of the film are Emma Stone as Abigail, Rachel Weisz as Sarah and Olivia Colman as Queen Anne.

Emma Stone’s steadily increasing appetite for power and status throughout the film, having originally been introduced as a wide-eyed ingenue who was gambled away in a card game by her own father, is at times despicable as she worms her way into Queen Anne’s heart and bed. I’m sure every other review has commented on it but keep an ear open for Stone’s English accent, it’s pretty solid. She is also a perfect foil, initially, to Rachel Weisz’s Sarah, who is blunt, audacious and immensely funny as she knocks her lines out of the park with a witheringly cool delivery. Weisz’s romantic moments with Coleman feels real, tender, filled with longing glances and knowing smiles, and is still wonderfully bawdy. I’m sure I was the only audience member, amongst a crowd of elderly couples, to have yelped with delight when Coleman orders Weisz to “fuck [her]” in the royal library. 

Coleman’s portrayal of the sickly and unstable queen is heart-wrenching to watch. Her sudden screaming mood swings followed by torrential downpours of paranoia, low self-esteem, and physical agony provides a stark contrast to her comical, bratty outbursts and proves that Anne has much more heart and humanity than audiences would originally give her credit for.

I came away from the screening with so many of Coleman’s scenes printed behind my eyelids, however, my favourite is a tight shot of Queen Anne as she watches Sarah dance with another member of her court. The camera lingers on her for roughly 30 seconds, as every emotion rolls over her pale face and her eyes fill to the brim with tears, before swallowing it all and demanding that the dance stops. While my account does not do her performance justice, Coleman is a master of control and emotional vulnerability as an actor and is thoroughly deserving of her BAFTA and Oscar nominations. This is also why Lanthimos is such a superb director, he gives everything to his films. Humour, strength, pain, and playfulness. The Favourite lets us have our cake and eat it too.

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