@Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Tue 1 Jan 2019
The year is 1708 (or thereabouts – it doesn’t seem to matter) and Britain is at war with France. As the Whigs and the Tories battle in parliament, vying for the sympathy and support of Queen Anne, the gout-ridden and distracted monarch is more concerned with drinking hot chocolate, lavishing her precious collection of pet rabbits with affection, and inventing nonsensical bedchamber games to pass the time. The political backdrop feels like a side-note to the film’s central concern, which is the struggle for power in the interpersonal relationships between the triumvirate of female protagonists – Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her erstwhile primary confidante, adviser, critic and lover, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), Sarah’s cousin, enemy and the new contender for the prized position of the Queen’s ‘favourite’.
As has been widely discussed, the sketchy historical accuracy of the film feels gloriously and hilariously irrelevant, as the film is far from being a conventional period piece. Rather, director Yorgos Lanthimos showcases his signature surrealist comedy shtick, familiar from the likes of Dogtooth and The Lobster, but this time imbued with acerbic caricature-rendering worthy of William Makepeace Thackaray and the obvious, easy pleasure that comes from applying contemporary humour and irreverent, modern dialogue to historical settings (see also: Monty Python, Blackadder and, to perhaps an even greater extent, Ianucci’s Death of Stalin).
Olivia Colman is predictably outstanding in her portrayal of Queen Anne. Isolated, petulant and emotionally needy, Colman’s warmth and effortlessly endearing presence help establish Anne as primarily a victim, easily manipulated by her conniving female suitors due to her deep loneliness and the fact her weak, almost child-like disposition means she is ill-suited to her position and often overwhelmed by affairs of state. Weisz gives an assured performance as the pragmatic, assertive Sarah, whose steely intellect has enabled her to establish a dominant role in her relationship with the Queen. Stone holds her own, too, switching with ease between the sweet, apparent guilelessness that wins the Queen’s affection and determined resolve as she concocts plots to further her position and influence at court. All three manage their roles with a subtlety barely permitted by the script, just about managing to establish their characters as women who are ultimately trapped by their situations, but are seeking either sustenance, survival or meaningful fulfilment. Nicholas Hoult is magnificently ridiculous as Whig conspirator Robert Harley, presented here as a clownishly made-up and powdered-wigged fop, his arrogance reminiscent of a sort of 18th century Bullingdon boy.
The comedy, while at times almost formulaic, relying heavily on the repeated invocation of the C-bomb and similar profanity within a jarring period setting, is undeniably effective and wickedly enjoyable. The indulgent, sumptuous visuals are equally satisfying, with the lavish palace setting and period costume complemented by a pleasing black and white colour motif that adds to the amusingly cartoonish feel of the film. The music, too, is fittingly both comically ostentatious and somehow intentionally crass at times, with classical pieces by Schubert and Bach featuring alongside some decidedly more modern work by Elton John. An audio callback to Rutger Hauer‘s violin playing turn in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (of a completely historically inappropriate piece by Schumann) seems entirely appropriate for a film with this level of defiant irreverence. The film’s point-blank refusal to be considered as a legitimate period piece is underlined once more by the distinctly contemporary camera work by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, again adding to the film’s mischievous appeal.
While stopping just short of offering the world of cinema something really new, The Favourite is a decidedly enjoyable romp and further evidence of Lanthimos’ status as a formidable and ingenious auteur in the world of comedy.