Sunday, 6 January 2019

Film Review - The Favourite (15)

Favour is a breeze that shifts direction all the time.
Anyone expecting The Favourite to be a traditional stately costume drama will have those expectations shot to hell - as with a well-primed musket - within the first ten minutes. In that time Olivia Colman's Queen Anne has a childish screaming fit and Emma Stone's Abigail gets literally booted from a carriage by an individual referred to in the credits as 'wanking man'. Yorgos Lanthimos' film has all magnificent spectacle and exquisite costume design you might expect, but it's also vicious, ribald and wildly eccentric throughout - making it the first essential Filmic Foray of 2019.
Queen Anne 18th Century court is rife with political conflict. The real power behind the throne is Lady Sarah Churchill - the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). As the Queen's trusted friend and confidante, she's in a position to steer British governmental policy. Her decision to allow her lowly cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) a servant's job at court seems innocuous at the time. But Abigail's innocence belies a fierce determination to regain her social status, along with the artfulness to make it happen. Lady Sarah quickly realises she has a rival for her position as the Queen's 'favourite', one equipped to match her in a savage battle of wits.
Let's be clear - for lovers of sumptuous period films The Favourite is gorgeous in every frame. Its locations brim with grandeur and the costumes (designed by Mary Poppins Returns' Sandy Powell) were impressive enough to grab even my attention. But under director Lanthimos' eye this courtly environment takes on other unexpected qualities, both surreal and relatable. He frequently filters the screenplay - one that's already pithy, profane and hilariously shocking - through a panoramic fish-eye lens, like the entire reality of the court is distorting. The camera spins one-eighty and picks out characters from unexpected angles, giving the period tale a dynamic contemporary feel. Meanwhile the Baroque music score becomes progressively more discordant and grating, as events twist in ever more nasty ways.
If you're acquainted with Lanthimos' previous films - most recently The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer - you'll know the kind of off-beat and unsettling worlds he's capable of creating. What you get in addition here are intense expressions of emotion, whether the characters are storming, sobbing or politely spitting out bile. There's nothing genteel about the wit on display here; this is a place of double-dealing, jealousy and spite, one where the closest-seeming friendships are suspect. 
At the heart of it all is that triangle of magnificent female performances with Colman's petulant but pitiable monarch at the apex. Floundering and gout-ridden, she's both hilarious and heart-breaking. Weisz rules the court with steely calm and a whip-crack verbal delivery, while Stone's apparent wide-eyed ingenue proves in tiny incremental steps to be so much more. The steady deepening rivalry of the two is compelling - a truly dark delight. As for the powdered and extravagantly-wigged men of the court, only Nicholas Hoult's leader of the opposition seems to have any leverage in the situation, but even he might be getting played. Nothing should be taken at face value.
The Favourite is an announcement to mainstream cinema-goers of Yorgos Lanthimos' brilliance. It's also a showcase for the kind of powerhouse female performances this blog championed all last year. With Awards Season beckoning, this triple-bill of complex women will gain massive attention and rightly so. They help rip up genre expectations in a power-play that's gripping, sexy, funny and moving - and which wrong-foots its audience persistently. Now how often does a historical drama give you all of that?
Gut Reaction: Enjoyment of the spectacle, steadily building laughter and a hint of dread.

Memorable Moment: Courtly dancing like you've never seen it before.

Ed's Verdict: 9.5/10. A huge mash-up of popular cinema and arthouse sensibilities, The Favourite is grand, outrageous and a success on every level. Unmissable. 

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