The Favourite is Yorgos Lanthimos’s blackly comic behind-the-scenes romp though a historical period that was strange enough to start with.
Three Little Maidsby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Olivia Colman excels as Queen Anne – absurdly gouty, petulant and over-reliant on her domineering confidante and lover Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Never venturing outside her candlelit palace, Anne is in name the head of state, yet hermetically out of touch with the world outside, leaving Sarah as de facto in charge and pushing for ever-increasing funding for the war being fought for Anne by her soldier husband Marlborough (Mark Gatiss).
This precarious balance is upset by the sudden arrival of Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), an aristocrat on her uppers. Sarah finds her a job as a kitchen maid, from where she schemes her way up into the Queen’s notice, eventually succeeding in vying with her cousin Sarah for her affections. The result is a poisonous love/power triangle between three manipulative, distrustful women, who are also seemingly in charge of a nation.
At times shot with Yorgos Lanthimos’s trademark distorting fisheye camera, the palace corridors down which Anne’s wheelchair races have a disorientating atmosphere. The dialogue is bawdy, funny and unlike any other period film. Whilst the events are pretty much historically accurate, the reality as portrayed seems so strange as to be unreal.
Anne is bizarre mixture of neediness, selfishness and belief in her divine right as queen. Though hers is merely a life of trivial amusements, such as duck racing in the palace corridors, it’s also poignant when she reveals her free-running rabbits are a substitute for her many failed pregnancies. Sarah is masculine, hard, determined and implacable, and she lives to regret her decision to instal Abigail in the palace kitchen. And Abigail is an intriguing mixture of quiet, persistent cunning and angelic looks as she hooks in a vulnerable yet powerful Queen to secure herself a berth for life.
At the film’s centre is the beautifully acted, volatile, dangerously co-dependent relationship between these three powerful, grotesque women. Men are secondary, though just as extravagantly extreme – Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), Sarah’s unlikely husband, and Nicholas Hoult as a foppishly be-wigged plotting minister, Robert Harley. A cinematographer’s dream world, a mind-bending cross between Horrible Histories and The Draughtsman’s Contract, The Favourite is not to be missed.
The Favourite screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 1 January 2019 in the UK.