Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos takes the costume drama out to lunch in a majestic, licentious romp that plays like an extended verbal sparring match. The combatants: ailing monarch Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her political advisor Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), a penniless upstart out for personal gain. The real antagonists are the arrogant male fops whose attempts to manipulate their queen and alter Britain’s course are continually thwarted by ladies whose guile, style, and wiles repeatedly outstrip their own.
If you’ve seen Lanthimos’ previous English-language features The Lobster or The Killing of a Sacred Deer, you’ll already be familiar with his deadpan aesthetic, eye for the absurd, and skill at generating insidious unease. All of the above are present and correct in The Favourite, though this time they are allied with a vein of pathos. When we first meet Colman’s Anne she is a testy, gouty horror, a slave to ill health, gluttony, and petulance. Gradually, though, we see the true Anne: a tragic, lonely, and forlorn figure in perpetual grief for 17 children lost to miscarriage and sickness.
The masterful Colman expertly conveys how readily such a creature would respond to the tough love she receives from Weisz’s Sarah. Yet Anne also takes a mischievous glee in playing her companions off against each other, safe in the knowledge it is she who ultimately holds the cards. It’s a fantastic performance from an actor surely on the cusp of international stardom.
Yet the imperious Weisz is no less compelling as Anne’s coolly controlling consort, while Stone, sporting a spot-on English accent in her first period role, craftily makes us root for underdog Abigail even as her actions veer towards the despicable. Elsewhere, Nicholas Hoult proves a pompous, preening pleasure as Robert Harley, an ambitious Tory determined to curtail a war from which Lady Sarah and her husband (Mark Gatiss) lucratively profit.
With his whip pans, fish-eye lenses and Kubrickian steadicam, DoP Robbie Ryan continually rewrites the period drama playbook with the same playful irreverence Sandy Powell brings to her anachronistic, stylised costume (A hilarious ballroom scene sees Weisz and Joe Alwyn’s randy aristocrat cut some distinctly modern shapes on the dance floor). It all adds up to a spiky, pithy and unconventional delight that surprises and intrigues as much as it moves and disquiets. Historical lesbian sex farce might not be a genre yet, but this is a fine way to get the ball rolling.
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- Release date: Out now (US)/January 1, 2019 (UK)
- Certificate: R (US)/15 (UK)
- Running time: 119 mins