Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos returns to screens with his most accessible and enjoyable film to date: The Favourite, an Eighteenth century farce, inked in gall and played with vigour. Think Mean Girls written by Jonathan Swift.
Poor cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) – a noblewoman fallen on hard times – makes her way to Queen Anne’s palace to seek a position from Lady Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), the Queen’s favourite – at least for now. When she isn’t giving the Queen (Olivia Colman) some tough love cosmetic advice – “You look like a badger” – Lady Marlborough treats Anne’s gout with beef or affectionately chides her, allowing herself a familiarity not usually granted to those beneath the royal person. She also uses her position and influence to further her political ideas, supporting the war against France where her Lord and husband (Mark Gatiss) and in doing so driving the rival Tory faction led by Mr. Harley (Nicholas Hoult) apoplectic.
Of course, Abigail soon finds favour first with her distant cousin, then with the Queen herself and more unwillingly with Mr. Harvey, who seeks to use her as a spy and influence the Queen’s policy to align with that of his party. The pros and cons of any given policy is not dwelt upon. The Tories object not so much to the war as to the high taxation that must be levied to finance it; and the Whigs likewise see in their own policy a chance to win advantage for themselves. When “the good of the country” is mentioned it is always with the assured smirk that no one really cares for such notions. As a scullery maid explains the stench of the locale to Abigail: “They shit in the street round here. Political commentary they call it.” T’was ever so.
It is only one of the many quotable flurries in Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis’ script, a work packed with wit and vitriol and beautifully turned vulgarity in equal measure. When a young nobleman falls for Abigail’s charms, Harvey describes him as “cuntstruck”. The plotting is of the conniving Dangerous Liaisons-style, with everyone after their own agenda: all smiles and tears are fake and the innocent, the most deadly of the species. Lanthimos gives everything the Flemish crispness of a still life – or natura morta (dead nature), as it’s more grimly known round these parts – but also imbues the scene with fruity vitality of a Tom Jones jaunt or a Rochester lyric. With fish eye lensing and slow motion, cinematographer Robbie Ryan keeps everything going and slightly off-balance. This has a painterly lushness to it – Barry Lyndon-like candlelight – but the painting won’t stay still in their frames and might even fall off the walls.
“Women Beware Women”, Thomas MIddleton once warned and so it proves here, with the jockeying for position threatening to prove mutually destructive. The three female leads likewise jockey for our affections, as Emma Stone – as she did in La La Land – first fake cries her way into our hearts before revealing herself to be made of flintier metal. Weisz gives her Lady Sarah an inverted trajectory of the high brought low, and perhaps finding a heart in the process. While Olivia Colman is simply stupendous as the Queen of unhappiness, who is at once comic grotesque, puking, lecherous and mad, but also a desperately lonely woman surrounded by lackeys and rabbits. The reason she has the latter is in itself heartbreaking.
And there is that. For all that life is vicious, brutish and short in Anne’s England – which, incidentally, became Great Britain for the first time during her reign – Lanthimos – thanks in large part to a marvellous script and three stellar performances – has made his most touching, heartfelt film to date. The Favourite has ribaldry and intelligence to burn, a deliciously entertaining period piece that feels liberated by its period, rather than restrained and invigorates like a glass of wine thrown violently in your face.
The BFI London Film Festival takes place from 10-21 October. whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff
John Bleasdale | @drjonty