It’s tempting to compare The Favourite, the latest film from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, to the present state of world leadership; this pitch-black comedy of manners is set in the court of 18th-century monarch Queen Anne and follows a ruthless power struggle for influence over the almost pathetically inept ruler. It certainly treats historical facts with irreverence, but the uncompromising commentary on the grisly absurdity of the ruling classes rings true, especially when considering the rise of the far right in Europe and the current leader of the free world. However, The Favourite isn’t a crude allegory for contemporary issues. Instead, it’s a stunningly unique period drama in its own right, exploring themes that are far more complex, bizarre and ultimately devastating.
The Favourite boasts an undeniably impressive supporting cast, including the likes of Mark Gatiss and Nicholas Hoult, but it’s the three leading women that inarguably steal the show. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone play Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hill respectively, the two courtiers vying for Queen Anne’s favour. Despite having the same goal, screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara have given Sarah and Abigail distinctly different methods of achieving it, which Weisz and Stone aptly convey in their (BAFTA nominated) performances. Sarah’s firmly forthright style of controlling the Queen ("You look like a badger") is contrasted against Abigail’s manipulative fawning ("If I were a man, I would ravish you!"). As the former approach begins to lose its grip in favour of the latter, Weisz and Stone keenly portray their characters’ changing attitudes and statuses. Stone deserves particular recognition for the way she develops an initially subservient maid into a merciless competitor, too preoccupied with political plotting to pay attention to her husband on their wedding night.
At the centre of the rivalry is Queen Anne herself, played by the frequently exceptional Olivia Colman who, until now, has largely made her talents known on television. When she has appeared on the big screen, she’s typically been confined to supporting roles, such as the hotel manager in another of Lanthimos’ films, 2015’s The Lobster. However, Colman is a more than worthy lead and her turn here as the ineffectual and naive Queen Anne is phenomenal. Davis and McNamara’s screenplay in tandem with Colman’s performance crafts a deeply nuanced character study, never succumbing to caricaturing the Queen despite the film’s comic leanings. Initially, there are certainly laughs to be had at Anne’s childlike behaviour, but her arrested development and tragic past soon become sources of sympathy, resulting in a thorny and complicated character that’s one of the most fascinating aspects of a highly fascinating film.
The gloom that haunts Queen Anne is, in fact, a pervasive presence in this film. Much of the entertainment value comes from Sarah and Abigail's abrasive conflict and the almost farcical competition within the court (such as a well-timed slapstick moment involving the leader of the opposition shoving Abigail off a hill). However, the majority of the depth comes from the tragedy and vulnerability the characters repress in their quest for control. Sarah and especially Abigail give up so much of themselves for the sole purpose of gaining the Queen’s favour, whilst the Queen herself is unable to use the luxuries of royal life to escape her crippling grief. A particularly striking moment when Anne tears a baby from the arms of a maid in a desperate attempt to experience motherhood brings all of the superficial power-grabbing into startling perspective. Sure, they have status and influence, but do they have happiness?
Another area in which The Favourite excels is its biting satire of the aristocracy. Slow-motion sequences of passionately competitive duck races and a naked man having fruit thrown at him are just some of the unsettling images Lanthimos conjures to drive home the upper-class’ ridiculousness. Additionally, the wigs, makeup and costumes are delightfully pompous, dialling the flamboyance of the period right up to eleven. Set against the backdrop of a contentious war with France, political backstabbing and shady dealings also inevitably abound. Davis and McNamara’s dialogue is witty, vicious and obscene, conveying the nastiness of political point-scoring with a scathing hilarity that would comfortably fit into an episode of Armando Iannucci's The Thick of It.
What’s vital about The Favourite - and what elevates it above the other period dramas the awards season bombards us with - is Yorgos Lanthimos’ filmmaking. The Favourite is, quite simply, a very strange film and Lanthimos’ vision can likely claim a lot of credit for that. The events have been divided into numerous chapters, giving the film an intriguingly offbeat pace. Alongside cinematographer Robbie Ryan (who has recently worked with the likes of Noah Baumbach and Ken Loach) Lanthimos has also constructed a tangible visual personality, best demonstrated by the sardonic fish-eye panning shots that seem to observe the action with a cynical smirk. If things still aren’t unusual enough for you, the audacious soundtrack will surely satisfy, thanks to its dynamic blending of classical baroque pieces, modern avant-garde composers and (in the closing credits) Elton John.
Perhaps the weirdest part of The Favourite, however, is its marketing. This film has received a surprisingly mainstream push, with posters adorning the sides of buses and the walls of multiplexes, despite its clear arthouse leanings. It’s likely a mixture of its awards buzz and the fact that it’s a period drama, but this is far from a film for Downton Abbey fans. However, for audiences attuned to the less conventional side of cinema - especially from quirky auteurs like Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers - The Favourite is a dark and profound tragicomedy about the fundamental futility of hankering after power.