Film review | The Favourite: When ambition and sadism go hand in hand

Greek weird-wunderkind Yorgos Lanthimos lands his most mainstream success yet with this heavily Oscar-nominated, pitch-black farce set in the court of Queen Anne

Olivia Colman (right) is Queen Anne and Rachel Weisz is the Duchess of Marlborough in The Favourite
Olivia Colman (right) is Queen Anne and Rachel Weisz is the Duchess of Marlborough in The Favourite

Both Game of Thrones and House of Cards have whet the international appetite for courtly intrigue and backstabbing of late; but with The Favourite, rising star director Yorgos Lanthimos fingers a far more caustic vein, and ends up scoring what is likely to be his most satisfying and comparatively mainstream success yet.

If nothing else, this can’t-look-away-from-the-atrocity take on a female love and domination triangle set in the 18th century court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), in which the already-cult Greek director accepts to take on a script that is not his own for the very first time – working off a long-gestating draft by Deborah Davis, since spruced up by Tony McNamara – has secured him a position among the global filmmaking elite.

Heavily nominated for both Golden Globes and the Oscars (Colman walked home with a Best Actress statuette from the former), The Favourite is a dark gem set firmly – and treacherously – amidst the plushy upholstery of the finely wrought period drama.

The year is 1708, and England is at war with France. The Queen is expected to take decisive action on the next stages of the war, whose funding has been helped along so far by heavy taxes on landowners, vociferously opposed by the Tory side of the parliament, here represented by Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), who butts heads with his counterpart on the opposition side, Sidney Godolphin (James Smith).

But instead of focusing on weighty matters of Crown and State, Lanthimos’s pitch-black social satire trains its unflinching laser-eyed gaze at the relationship between the Queen and her adviser and confidante Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz)... also one of the queen’s lovers, and certainly a court ‘favourite’.

It is a privileged position that is however undermined with the arrival of Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), a cousin of Sarah’s whose family has fallen on hard times, leaving the young ingenue to beg for a job at court. What begins as a bumpy and abusive ride for Abigail soon reveals a sliver of opportunity, as the girl learns to exploit the queen’s weaknesses, chief of which is the festering psychological wound of having lost all of her children, with her 17 rabbits apparently having taken their place…

From his blistering breakthrough feature Dogtooth (2009) and down to his more recent English-language arthouse hits The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), Lanthimos has exhibited a mastery over the inherent strangeness of human behaviour and desire. It’s an exploratory tendency that is usually fleshed out by means of a surrealist central conceit, and generally tends to unspool in the spirit of the blackest of black comedy. For example, The Lobster posits a world where people have to find partners lest they be turned into an animal of their choice, while the protagonists of his 2011 feature Alps are a troupe of gymnasts who moonlight as actors… hired by strangers to impersonate their recently lost loved ones.

And while the core narrative does not originate from Lanthimos himself this time, the director’s impish sensibility can be seen smudging the gloss of what could have been a ‘well-made’ period drama, in each frame. Less Merchant and Ivory and more Peter Greenaway, this is a truly irreverent take on the genre, where any grandiosity is undercut by the pettiness of the characters – don’t look for heroines here – and whose foibles and foiled desires are shot to reflect the farcical pathos they operate under.

Designed by Fiona Crombie and shot by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, the opulent interiors are muted with white and blue light that never allows the colours to get too pretty, and Lanthimos’ camera weaves around to reveal our protagonist from their least flattering angles as they gnaw and pick at each other.

The director has also developed something of a reputation for offbeat rehearsal methods, though if The Favourite is anything to go by, taking an approach more common to theatrical production (as Lanthimos has claimed) appears to have borne great fruit here. The prestigious award recognition heaped upon the film’s leads speaks for itself, but what it means for us viewers is raw and fully embodied performances that require no soliloquies or showiness to exude brilliance… so much so that Colman, Weisz and Stone all operate on an even keel, with none of them detracting attention from the other. A supreme irony in a film that’s all about manipulative one-upmanship, but there we are.

The verdict

Caustically funny without being flippant or excessively mean-spirited and beautifully wrought but eschewing visual fetishisation, The Favourite is a rare beast indeed: a sneakily entertaining anti-period drama that deconstructs the foibles of its erstwhile genre while sustaining the momentum of a mutually destructive human vortex that is perversely, beguilingly entertaining from start to finish.

The Favourite will be screened at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier, Valletta on February 9, 10, 16 and 24