Yorgos Lanthimos first caught our eye with the release of the extraordinary The Lobster back in 2015 and this opulent, stately and often bawdy period drama, shot through with comedy, tragedy, and political intrigue, is a heady and intoxicating brew, which is rightly garnering Oscar nods and eases Olivia Colman ever closer to the ‘National Treasure’ status that is clearly so rightfully hers. Told in eight distinct chapters (titled from dialogue within those chapters), The Favourite explores the extraordinary 18th-century power struggle between Sarah Churchill (Weisz) and her down-on-her-luck cousin Abigail (Stone) as they battle for the affections of the quirky, ailing Queen Anne (Colman). Largely disinterested in the political machinations spiralling around her, Anne is crippled by gout and, as we learn, emotionally devastated by the unimaginable loss of the seventeen children she has carried. Her confidante Sarah (Weisz) becomes her lover but their secret tryst is threatened by the arrival of Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Stone) who spies the couple together (although there’s nothing really salacious here beyond a bit of explicit - and gutbustingly funny - dialogue) and uses what she’s learned to prise the illicit couple apart and take Sarah’s place at Anne’s side and in her bed.
The Favourite is a bold, vivacious movie. Lanthimos has sidelined his usual slightly arthouse tendencies and, with the help of a beautifully judged script (originally written years ago by Deborah Davis but buffed up by Tony McNamara) created a film that sometimes - and this is no criticism - drifts into Carry On Anne territory, but is more often the immersive, gripping and oddly touching story of a powerful-yet-weak damaged woman used and manipulated by those she has chosen to trust. Despite her frailties and ailments, she is still able to assert her authority for the sake of her country and, perhaps, her own well-being. Olivia Colman, her career already a glittering and enviable CV, has never been better than as the feisty, shouty, sweary Anne; it’s a perfectly pitched performance, which deftly balances pathos and comedy as she rages at lowly servants and delivers devastating putdowns to a parade of simpering courtiers and bewigged politicians. Anne becomes increasingly frustrated at her inability to enjoy any real quality of life, locking herself away in her bedroom as those in her circle revel in the delights of such popular past times as duck racing and throwing rotten fruit at naked fat blokes. She’s fair game, then, for Weisz’s cunning, plausible Sarah, playing on Anne’s dependency and encouraging her to raise taxes for the ongoing war with France, which will glorify Sarah’s husband Marlborough (Gatiss), much to the consternation of government minister Robert Harley (Hoult). Into Anne’s court stumbles Abigail (Stone), Sarah’s cousin who expertly slips into Anne’s confidence and outmanoeuvres the increasingly-desperate Sarah at every turn.
This is a movie that doesn’t put foot a wrong across its two-hour runtime (apart from one or two musical cues, which might grate a little). It’s often killingly funny, its sometimes modernistic humour never straying into parody or farce, and yet the tragedy of Anne’s circumstance is never far away and our sympathies drift between each of these strong, wily women as their fortunes ebb and flow and the balance of power (the film’s original title) tips back and forth as the story progresses.
The Favourite deserves all the acclaim and plaudits it’s been showered with and more and it’s a delight to see Lanthimos keeping his quirkier tendencies at bay and crafting a sly, joyous, gloriously elegant comedy/drama of manners that kicks off a New Year at the movies in style.
THE FAVOURITE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: YORGOS LANTHIMOS / SCREENPLAY: DEBORAH DAVIS, TONY MCNAMARA / STARRING OLIVIA COLMAN, EMMA STONE, RACHEL WEISZ, NICHOLAS HOULT, JOHN ARWYN, MARK GATISS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Expected Rating: 8 out of 10