The capriciousness of the English court in the early 18th century and the perils of falling from favour are explored in this superb tragicomic take on the reign of Queen Anne from director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster). Casting off the stiffness of its period drama predecessors and with the director’s penchant for the surreal marvellously applied, it combines sex, skulduggery and animal companions with disarming doses of human frailty.
In a film that’s set almost entirely within palace walls and based on the bones of historical reality, the players flanking the ailing and erratic queen (Olivia Colman) are a dastardly bunch; the men an embarrassment of bewigged, powder-puffed grotesques, typified by First Lord of the Treasury Sidney Godolphin (James Smith) and the leader of the Tory opposition, Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult). The women are no less scheming, nor powerful – though they are better dressed. Anne’s right-hand woman Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) is the de facto boss, an astute political puppeteer as well as playmate, carer and more.
Although the war with France has theoretically been won, Sarah’s commander-in-chief husband, the Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), has the appetite to hammer the point home. Further military action is proposed, to be waged at considerable cost to the taxpayer. The landowners are staunchly defended by Harley, putting him at odds with Sarah who delights in tormenting him. The situation is rendered even more combustible by the arrival of Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), a former aristocrat who has fallen on hard times; despite her ingenue appearance and humble situation she rapidly becomes a rival for the queen’s affection.
If the cruelty is breathtaking and the antagonistic interplay upon which the film is built divine, what’s perhaps most striking is how moving the story becomes – imbued with authentic emotion by a formidable triumvirate of female leads who propel their characters beyond comedy and caricature. As expletives fly, bodices are ripped and plans are hatched, while deceptions cut deep.
A wily, alert Stone takes Abigail from guileless to devious; all the more dangerous because of her desperation, she’s a scrapper whose thirst for success is wholly about survival. Sarah, too, hides a motivation that’s a far cry from her fearsome posturing, with Weisz so well-suited to the material, she may never have been better. Yet it’s Colman who stands out in a role which showcases the many shades of this wonderful actress. Her sovereign might bark madly at servants and courtiers alike but she’s been “stalked by tragedy” and brought low by chronic illness. The film lays bare the ease at which a monarch may be manipulated, especially one as isolated and vulnerable as Anne.
The era is droolingly, often quirkily, rendered by production designer Fiona Crombie and triple Oscar-winning costumer Sandy Powell (Shakespeare in Love, Mary Poppins Returns), while it’s sumptuously shot by Robbie Ryan (American Honey, Slow West). Viewed at a thrilling tilt and featuring dozens of exchanges to savour, not since Peter Greenaway’s heyday has the heritage film been presented with such strange, exhilarating irreverence. A pioneer of the “Weird Wave” of Greek cinema, Lanthimos brings his outsider’s eye to period English costume drama in a film that loosens its corsets considerably.
The Favourite is released in cinemas on Tuesday 1st January 2019