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Film Review: The Favourite

18 January 19 words: Ashley Carter

Absolute power corrupts absolutely in Yorgos Lanthimos' satirical dark period drama...

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring: Olivia Coleman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone

Running time: 119 mins

It’s the early 18th century, and the frail Queen Anne sits on the English throne. The country is engaged in yet another war with France but, in the opulent royal palaces of London, the ruling class is far more interested in racing ducks and powdering their outlandish wigs. The fiery Lady Sarah Churchill governs by proxy owing to the Queen’s ailing health, whilst her husband, the famous Lord Marlborough, leads England’s armed forces in France. When a new servant, Abigail (a cousin of Churchill’s who has fallen on hard times after being unsuccessfully wagered in a card game by her father), appears at court, cracks begin to appear in the close relationship between Churchill and Anne as the Queen takes the new arrival under her wing. 

As the ad hoc triumvirate emerges, the nefarious desires of all three women propel them into a ferociously Machiavellian struggle for power. In a time where the roles of women in film are being placed under a microscope like never before, Lanthimos, unlike many of his filmmaking contemporaries, admirably refuses to patronise the gender by needlessly portraying them as saints. There are no heroes to be found here, rather, three desolate figures driven to commit the most morally repugnant of acts, motivated by their base need for power, love, respect and status. 

 Part All About Eve, part Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, part Tom Jones (Tony Richardson’s bawdy 1963 film, not the leathery skinned Welsh crooner, sadly) and with a good sized helping of Ken Russell, Armando Iannucci and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette thrown in for good measure, Lanthimos successfully strikes an uneasy, but constantly engaging balance of dark humour and pathos. We kick off at a kinetic pace, as an aesthetically luxurious table is laid for us without wasting a moment of needless context. But as the pace begins to slow, the lives of our three women start to spectacularly unravel. Sarah, (a career-best performance from Rachel Weisz), feels her influence begin to slip away; the symbiotic relationship she has cultivated with Queen Anne is disrupted by the presence of the younger, equally ruthless, but more sycophantic Abigail (Emma Stone). 

A surrealist orgy of cynicism and corruption presented in a script packed full of scheming, profanity and wit

Whilst the Queen (the equally excellent Olivia Coleman), who resides in a state of emotional arrested development owing to the equally damaging influences of terrible heartbreak and endless mollycoddling, needs constant reassurance and flattery; the combination of practically limitless power and the need for instant gratification creating a ferociously unstable character that can erupt at any moment.

There’s air of the macabre in the level of decadence on show. We see powdered wigs and lead painted faces serving as a mask for rotten teeth and even more rotten ideas. The country is at war, and the people are being taxed beyond their means to pay for it, yet those in charge engage in the types of debauched antics that would make the Marquis de Sade roll his eyes. The metaphor is clear, if not a little on the nose - most notably when, as the war with France is at its most crucial juncture and the love triangle between Queen Anne, Sarah and Abigail reaches its zenith, we watch Members of Parliament pelt a naked man with fruit in slow motion, one of several moments of creative bombast. The emotionally shattered Queen Anne keeps seventeen rabbits in her room, one for every child she has lost, contributing to the lurking presence of death that fills every corner of the beautiful Baroque palace. But as yet another licentious evening of entertainment begins, the show must go on in earnest.

The Favourite is possibly Lanthimos’ most accessible film to date, and how much that owes to it being the first film he has not written himself is anyone’s guess. The world he has created is luscious, allowing your eyes to feast on the impeccable attention to detail on show. His camerawork is engaging and inventive at first but, as the film begins to slow somewhat, becomes a little intrusive and repetitive. Nonetheless, these are minor problems in what otherwise is an engrossing and engaging viewing experience. 

With strong supporting performance from Nicholas Hoult, Mark Gatiss and James Smith, The Favourite is a surrealist orgy of cynicism and corruption presented in a script packed full of scheming, profanity and wit. Part satire and part damning condemnation, it’s a sumptuous, sordid treat that warrants repeat viewing. 

Did you know? Lady Sarah Churchill, played by Rachel Weisz, is a direct ancestor of both Winston Churchill and Princess Diana

The Favourite is in cinemas now

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