Now, I consider myself quite open-minded when it comes to my taste in movies. There’s not much I’ll instantly dismiss, unless the title contains a combination of the words ‘Shades’ ‘Grey’ and ‘Fifty’ I’ll give most things a go. But one genre that usually always fails to ignite my excitement gland (it’s just below the right nipple) is ‘Historical Costume Drama’. I’m not sure entirely why, despite the palatial and aristocratic settings that usually accompany such films. I just find the actual content too often drab and samey. They just never seem to ‘grab’ me.
So with that said, it was with the most pleasant of surprises, that The Favourite, the latest from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, is not your regular historical costume drama. You will know that even before you hear the first of several brilliant uses of the C-word.
This is a thrilling, deliciously acerbic and thoroughly entertaining movie, featuring three outstanding performances from its central stars, Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. It’s a wonderful mixture of delightfully witty and sharp dialogue, sneaky cloak and dagger plotting and one-upmanship, as various characters battle for power in increasingly absurd ways.
It’s 1708, the widowed Queen Anne (Colman) is facing an expensive war with France as well as a war with her own body, as painful bouts of gout leave her stricken on the floor in agony. We also find out in one particularly touching scene, that she has also experienced great personal loss during her reign as Monarch. We quickly get a sense that there is more to this Queen than the simple buffoonery we see initially.
At Queen Anne’s side is Sarah Churchill, Lady Marlborough (Weisz), who we see as a close friend and confidante but holding considerable influence over the Queen, at times effectively ruling the affairs of state. Something that frustrates several of the male populated government. Not least Conservative politician Robert Harley, brilliantly played with foppish arrogance by Nicholas Hoult, and his opposing agenda. It also has made life for her and her husband, commander of the armed forces Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss) prosper financially.
Oh, and on top of all this Sarah is also Queens Anne’s secret lover. Consider the plot thickened.
This apparent status quo is disrupted when Sarah’s young, impoverished cousin, Abigail Hill (Stone), arrives at the palace, seeking employment after her father disgraced himself and gambled the family’s fortune and name away. Not to mention Abigail herself.
At first, Sarah takes pity and Abigail is relegated to the kitchens as a lowly maid. But as we soon discover, Abigail is no wilting flower and the opportunistic and clever woman soon finds herself in a position to worm her way closer to the needy Queen Anne, setting off a fierce rivalry with Sarah.
And that is the core of this brilliant film. The connection between these three flawed yet fascinating women. Love triangle, power struggle, petty cruelty and genuine warmth all rolled into one multi-layered portrayal that you can’t take your eyes from. And what drives those dynamics are the extraordinary performances from all three, who balance each other perfectly, and play off one another with sizzling chemistry.
Colman’s performance is truly stunning. She shows Anne as clingy, insecure and childish. But also captures her raw emotion which gives us a glimpse of the stronger ruler she perhaps once was, particularly in the end scene. She provides some genuine pathos and credibility to a character that could’ve easily fallen into caricature territory. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone have each delivered their best performances in some time, if not the best, of their respective careers. Cold and conniving, whilst spitting out top drawer passive aggressive barbs and glances. But make no mistake, Olivia Colman is the heart and soul of this film, and she continues to impress with each passing role. Her work in Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur stands out in particular. But this will be the one that finally garners her international recognition.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ more modern technical approach to The Favourite is refreshing for the genre. Off kilter camera angles, some ‘fish eye’ style shots, long sweeping camera runs. It just feels like everything is always moving forward visually at a pace to match the electric script.
The whole thing is a just a joy to watch. If you harbour the same genre assumptions such as i did? trust me and cast them aside and just enjoy a funny, extravagant and, at times, quietly sinister thrill of a movie.