Review: The Favourite

A down and dirty period drama with an eccentric, madcap feel, The Favourite showcases three excellent actresses at the top of their game.

It’s the early 18th century, and Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) rules under the thumb and tough love of Sarah, Duchess of Malborough (Rachel Weisz). When Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) begs for a job after a fall from aristocracy, her generosity sparks a battle of wits to become the queen’s “favourite” adviser and companion.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos (who directed The Lobster) is known as a filmmaker fixated on the odd and offbeat, but in an accessible way for the average cinemagoer. Here, he brings this unique focus to the British period drama, and in my view – as someone who really doesn’t like period movies – makes this example of the often staid genre visceral, madcap and engrossing.

Adapting the script from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, Lanthimos orchestrates an air of weird humour and near surrealism, for a refreshingly strange feel. The machinations behind the throne are excellently, wittingly scripted, intricately strung upon an neatly separated eight section structure drawing together rumour, fact and supposition about the real life interplay between these three women.

As the film progresses, more definition is given to the complex nature of the relationships between the three, and as well as fleshing out three strong female characters in great detail, Lanthimos and the script allow each actress to express quite broad humour and emotional complexity. He clearly knows how to get the best out of his cast, effortlessly providing comedic and dramatic scenes that turn on a dime but never lose the overall baroque mood or feel.

Consequently, this felt very fresh for a period movie, and absolutely nowhere near as straight laced or buttoned up as what we’re used to. Sex, swearing and the utter detritus of the times whether rich or poor set us apart from the worlds of Austen or Bronte, while at the same time not giving into the lamentable urge to sexualise intimate female relationships.

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That tangible air is strengthened via the use of period properties including Hampton Court Palace, only adding to a sense of place. Production designer Fiona Crombie and cinematographer Robbie Ryan follow the exacting work of the TV show Wolf Hall by staging and illuminating scenes as they would have been lit then – mostly with candles and natural light, giving both locations and certain scenes a gaudiness, a plainness or an imposing, doomy feel.

Constrasted to this is the use of idiosyncratic camera angles and lenses, such as fisheye or wide angle, while a completely period specific curation of orchestral compositions helps lend an authentic musical air to the soundtrack. Costume designer Sandy Powell also deserves a mention for the outrageous yet accurate costumes, which are flamboyant and often distinctively bizarre.

The film however mainly succeeded for me due to its three stars, Olivia Colman undoubtedly making an international name for herself here as the pitiable, pathetic Anne. She evokes an air of repressed grief with only a look or a glance, but explodes in  fiery confrontations as the queen remembers her position relative to these women, who are attempting to sway her one way or another.

Rachel Weisz plays a character so unlike her usual roles that I thought it one of her best performances. Utilising her cut glass accent, she unnerves with a cold, domineering air that paints her as the power behind the throne, bolshily ordering male politicians around (to their fury) as well as Anne, and generally owning the place. Sarah’s softer side is less spotted but notable for Weisz’s articulation of a woman who knows she may have pushed her luck a bit far.

Most surprisingly, Emma Stone adopts a flawless English accent and almost steals the film as newcomer Abigail. All flattery and hidden malevolence, she ingratiates herself into the household and ascends the ladder with style, and for me this is definitely one of her strongest acting roles because it challenges her, rather than being another of the stereotypical characters she’s often handed.

Men onscreen are largely reduced to cameos because the story demands that be the case, but Nicholas Hoult makes a visual, performative impact as the gaudy, oleaginous opposition leader Robert Harley. With more make up than all three women put together, he emanates entitlement and disdain with a mere look, and has great interplay particularly with Weisz and Stone in some confrontational schemes.

Mark Gatiss appears snarkily and briefly as Sarah’s cuckolded husband the Duke, while Joe Alwyn gives Baron Masham – Harley’s friend and a pursuer of Abigail – a haughty, oafish and hilarious air in very few scenes. I also enjoyed the casting of James Smith of The Thick of It as First Lord of the Treasury Godolphin, the actor’s hangdog looks and demeanour perfect for a man at the whims of impulsive, strong willed women.

This film has got a lot of awards buzz and deservedly so. It’s not your standard period drama, and for that reason alone it was a really pleasant surprise. It might not be for everyone, but if anything see it for the three lead performances.

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