Any film whose cast credits include “Fastest Duck in the City,” “Wanking Man” and “Nude Pomegranate Tory” — the latter featured in a raucous parlor game that begs to become a recreational sport for frustrated British liberals — is never going to be a prim and proper period piece. Nor for that matter is any work directed by the most audacious filmmaking talent to come out of Greece in decades, Yorgos Lanthimos. His fabulously entertaining tragicomedy, The Favourite, is a juicy power tangle connecting three women in the royal court of early 18th century England, played by a divine trio that bounces off one another with obvious relish.
In addition to its sumptuous visuals and delectable wit, this must-see Fox Searchlight release offers a balanced triumvirate of formidable female leads rich in surprising character shadings. Without a trace of didactic protofeminism, their roles speak volumes about the savvy required of women to use their influence in a bitterly divided political landscape, not to mention pursue their personal agendas.
The last frock opera to break the mold to this degree was Sofia Coppola’s underrated Marie Antoinette. Favourite's seductive use of natural lighting from the earliest scenes, as the sun streams in through the palace windows, or as candlelight flickers across the actors’ faces at night, recalls another unorthodox period satire, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. But it’s the vibrantly alive performances and the mischievous spark of the dialogue that will expand Lanthimos’ audience beyond his previous two English-language films, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, both equally distinctive works but for more rarefied tastes.
Australian playwright and screenwriter Tony McNamara worked with Lanthimos to adapt Deborah Davis’ original script, and the film has a playful vitality throughout, laced with hilarious nuggets of profanity and acquiring darker hues as the relationships evolve. It opens with a regal burst of Handel, as the frail, gout-stricken Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is helped out of her ceremonial robes and crown by attendants before anxiously seeking the approval of her closest friend and confidante, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), over the speech she has just given. Sarah complies, but draws the line at saying hello to the queen’s “babies” — actually 17 pet bunnies. “Love has its limits,” she tells the monarch, who snaps back, “It should not.”
The boundaries of devotion are tested constantly as Sarah exploits Anne’s infirmity to manipulate the divided political sphere to her advantage and that of her husband, Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), commander in chief of the British army. She also has the ear of powerful politician Sidney Godolphin (James Smith), nominally a Tory but aligned with the opposing Whigs, who wish to continue England’s war against France and propose doubling the tax on landowners to finance it. The extent to which Anne is kept out of the loop is revealed early when she’s genuinely surprised to hear that the war is not over and won. When the queen later predicts that the tax hikes will anger her people, Sarah coolly replies: “They’ll be angrier when the French are sodomizing their wives and planting their fields with garlic.”
Those initial impressions of the monarch paint her as something of a sad, gullible buffoon, waddling about in self-absorbed pain, throwing petulant tantrums, wailing like a sick child or barking snippy commands when she feels disrespected. But Colman’s towering performance, which stands to bring this brilliant actor the more widespread attention she has long been due, is a work of complex layering. She slowly uncovers the searing pathos beneath the crazy-lady makeup (“We went for something dramatic. Do you like it?” she asks Sarah, who tells her she looks like a badger), the infantile mood swings and wild eccentricities. A scene in which she reveals with great sorrow that her rabbits are surrogates for the children she lost either while giving birth or soon after has a shattering force all the more powerful because it comes after so much farcical comedy.
But Sarah’s dominion over the queen’s affections, and by extension, her influence in governing the country, is challenged with the arrival at court of her cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), in need of employment as a servant. The former aristocrat fell on hard times after her father gambled away their estate, and while she takes a position as a scullery maid, she soon uses her wiles to advance up the ranks. This requires first gaining a degree of Sarah’s trust (a process negotiated over several tartly funny scenes where they practice pigeon shooting together) and next by insinuating herself into the queen’s good graces. Among other places.
Essentially, Abigail becomes Eve Harrington to Sarah’s Margo Channing, though the latter certainly doesn’t step aside without a fight. She’s smart enough to see through Abigail’s false flattery and detect the possibility that the chambermaid might intend to play both sides when she confides that ambitious Tory leader Harley (Nicholas Hoult) has approached her to be his eyes and ears at court. When Abigail obliquely refers to more intimate knowledge of Sarah’s special relationship with the queen, Sarah calmly mentions the potential for unfortunate accidents while guns are being handled.
These two are worthy adversaries, and Stone and Weisz play them to the hilt. Stone at first maintains flickers of innocence and vulnerability beneath her character’s calculation. But Abigail’s ruthlessness becomes apparent as she realizes that Sarah will stand in the way of her regaining her footing as a lady. Hoult’s tricky Harley, outrageously powdered, rouged and primped in the dandyish fashion of the time, and the far more malleable Masham (Joe Alwyn), who’s intoxicated with Abigail at first sight, prove useful accomplices in her plan. A brawling seduction scene in the woods in which Abigail shows Masham that she’s no pushover is a hoot, as is her perfunctory servicing of him when the occasion requires it.
Weisz fully convinces as a woman accustomed to having the upper hand, even with a sovereign who obviously far outranks her, and Sarah’s needling displays of cruelty are delicious. Costumer Sandy Powell often dresses her in pants, frock coat and a tricorn hat, like a swaggering pirate, an impression deepened late in the film when a disfiguring accident causes her to cover one eye with a black lace kerchief. The character takes even the worst misfortunes in stride, appearing to gather fuel from the threat of a precipitous tumble down the class ladder to rival that experienced by her cousin. But what’s most memorable about Weisz’s performance is not its incandescent intelligence and survivalist cunning; it’s the grounding in a complicated love no less real than what Anne feels for Sarah. There’s poignancy in the fact that in her attempts at blackmail, she ultimately hurts herself the most.
The elegantly structured film is broken up into eight chapters with titles like This Mud Stinks, I Do Fear Confusion and Accidents, What an Outfit and I Dreamt I Stabbed You in the Eye. It ends on a note of sorrowful ambiguity, accompanied by the melancholy strains of a Schubert sonata, in which the two points of the triangle still in place are left in sobering contemplation of their situation. It's not surprising that Lanthimos has no interest in the conventional wrap-up of revealing what ultimately became of the characters, but his conclusion resonates nonetheless. Colman in particular is superb in the final scenes, as Anne’s swollen face and body inhibit her movement and even her speech, while her mind seems to acquire a sudden piercing lucidity.
Throughout, Lanthimos’ eclectic music choices help to shape the changing tone — from classical pieces by Handel, Bach, Purcell and Vivaldi to modernist, experimental or electronic composers like Olivier Messiaen, Luc Ferrari and Anna Meredith, including intermittent use of obsessive, scratchy strings that rupture the surface. In one exhilarating interlude, Sarah cuts loose in a minuet with Masham full of flamboyantly anachronistic moves.
Visually, the movie is a feast. Lanthimos is working for the first time with Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan. Shooting on 35mm, he shifts from formal framing to off-kilter perspectives, supple movement and disorienting wide-angle views as the camera moves from the vast kitchens to the wooden staircases, echoing corridors, airy drawing rooms and plush private chambers of the principal location, Hatfield House, a Jacobean estate in Hertfordshire. Production designer Fiona Crombie stuffs the queen’s rooms with fine brocade tapestries and gilt, further insulating the monarch’s hermetic world. Lastly, there’s no costume designer more skilled at injecting sly touches of modernity into period wardrobe than Powell; her stunning work here has a theatrical flair that seems just right for characters so outside the parameters of the average British period film.
Production companies: Element Pictures, Scarlet Films
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Cast: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, James Smith, Mark Gatiss, Jenny Rainsford
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenwriters: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Producers: Ceci Dempsey, Ed Guiney, Lee Magiday, Yorgos Lanthimos
Executive producers: Andrew Lowe, Daniel Battsek, Rose Garnett, Josh Rosenbaum, Ken Kao, Tony McNamara, Deborah Davis
Director of photography: Robbie Ryan
Production designer: Fiona Crombie
Costume designer: Sandy Powell
Editor: Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Casting: Dixie Chassay
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Rated R, 120 minutes