Director Yorgos Lanthimos earned a reputation for making absurd, boundary-pushing films. That The Favourite lives up to its name as a major contender in this year’s award season might indicate that it’s not quite as out there as Dogtooth, The Lobster or The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, but between political machinations, secret affairs and a spot of duck racing for good measure, this raucous costume drama is never knowingly understated.
Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone star as the main movers in a power struggle that takes place during the War of Spanish Succession. Riddled with gout, the depressed Queen Anne (Colman) largely leaves the running of England to Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Weisz), who serves as the monarch’s closest adviser and confidant.
Enter Abigail Hill (Stone), Sarah’s younger cousin, who has lost her standing and her home as a result of her father’s gambling. After Sarah gives her a job as a scullery maid, Abigail comes to learn more about the unusual arrangement between her cousin and the queen, and a romantic rivalry soon erupts behind closed doors.
The first hour of The Favourite is just as advertised, playing more like The Thick Of It than Blackadder in its comedy. Even though it’s a couple of centuries removed from the Whitehall antics of Malcolm Tucker and company, the film evokes the same feeling of peeking inside the corridors of power and being alarmed by what we see. On top of that, it has got James Smith and lots and lots of swearing.
Unlike in Armando Iannucci’s similarly speculative satire The Death Of Stalin, Lanthimos’ film amplifies the feeling of being a fly on the wall. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan favours fish-eye wide lenses and claustrophobic camera movements that leave us stationed in selected spots for the length of a scene, watching the drama unfold from some dark corner.
Strangely, this all lends itself to the comedy remarkably well, as do the terrific performances of the three leads. The script, penned by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, requires versatile performances, and Colman, Weisz, and Stone are all acting at the peak of their powers in a dynamic that’s more than a little reminiscent of All About Eve.
At the centre of the triangle, Colman initially cuts quite a comic figure, with her unusual behaviour coming across as childlike and tempestuous. Over the course of the film, as we learn more about why Anne is the way she is, her performance grows into something quite extraordinary. It must have been a tough character to break, but she balances the comedy and the pathos spectacularly.
The standout, though, is Weisz, who conducts herself far more gracefully and passionately than a Tucker type. Imperious even in the face of the queen herself, Sarah is a formidable opponent to anyone seeking to disrupt her. Her spiky exchanges with both Abigail and Nicholas Hoult’s fabulously bewigged Tory git Robert Harley are a joy to behold. Just as impressively, Stone is truly compelling as the ambitious and manipulative Abigail, a lady in waiting in more ways than one.
The only way in which the film leaves you wanting is after it essentially becomes more serious. It’s no less great after it flawlessly executes the pivot into tragicomic territory, but the first half is considerably more entertaining. There are plenty more acerbic put-downs and unexpected gags where that came from, but they’re fewer and further between as the film builds to its climax.
Despite appearing to be quite ironically detached, The Favourite is just as emotionally engaging as it is laugh-out-loud funny. Lanthimos has made far more absurd films than this, but it’s a delight to watch him unsettle the worthy costume drama at a time in the film release calendar when we could really use it. The quality of Colman, Weisz, and Stone is absolutely inseparable (as could prove a problem in several Best Supporting Actress categories between now and next month) and it’s their combined effort that really makes this soar.