Since 2015’s The Lobster, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has established a reputation for quirky and enigmatic films that approach their subject matters from completely unexpected directions. Take The Favourite for instance. This sumptuously dressed costume drama offers us a story that seems as mad as a box of frogs – but it only takes a cursory Google search to establish that most of what happens here cleaves fairly close to established historical truth – proof if ever it were needed that fact can be a lot stranger than fiction. That said, Lanthimos finds ways of amping up the oddness to the max.
We are in the early 18th century, in the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), a troubled monarch plagued by recurring bouts of gout, who wanders about the place like a sulky teenager. She is totally under the control of the manipulative Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), who – as well as being Anne’s secret lover – also uses her to further her strong political ambitions. Into the court comes Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), whose family have fallen on hard times and who is now looking for gainful employment. Sarah grudgingly takes her in as a servant, but Abigail soon tires of a life of drudgery, and decides instead to insinuate herself into the Queen’s good graces, something she proves to be rather adept at. It isn’t long before a powerful rivalry is ignited between Sarah and Abigail and it’s clear that both women are prepared to do whatever it takes to gain the upper hand.
Lanthimos manages to convey an atmosphere of cold suspicion beautifully and his regular use of a fish eye lens amplifies the claustrophobic ambiance of this troubled court. The film is built around three superb performances from the female leads, with Colman already nominated for a best actress Oscar, and Stone and Weisz for best supporting actress. Indeed, the three of them dominate the film to such a degree that few of the male characters get much of a look in, though I do enjoy Nicholas Hoult’s sardonic turn as Harley, leader of the Tories, who forms a sneaky alliance with Abigail in order to oust his political opponents from power. Those of a prudish persuasion should note that the film is rumbustious enough to fully earn its 15 certificate – some of the scenes here are a bit saucy, to say the very least.
With a running time of just under two hours, The Favourite positively gallops along, making me laugh out loud and, occasionally, gasp in surprise. It would be very hard to think of a more enjoyable way to begin a new year’s viewing.