The Favourite

The Favourite ★★★★

If The Killing of a Sacred Deer was Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s distilled and terrifying masterwork, The Favourite is Yorgos letting off some steam while never losing track of his own unique sense of dark humour, powered by conflict and destined for great tragedy.

An 18th century period drama set in the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), fuelled with anarchic bliss as the shamed Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) works her way from scullery to frocks and attempts to usurp Anne from the grip of Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough.

Although based on real figures, this is mostly the dressing for the playground that is the script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, with arch and clipped dialogue barely concealing its lurid, foul-mouthed grotesquery disguised as formalism. Marked by playful chapter titles, the screenplay is a barrage of sharp, savage comedy and wordplay that balances its three leading characters terribly well.

Stone shows exceptional range as a woman so clearly up to something and harbouring other intentions from the start while playing so coy, and signposts it with every anachronistic twinge and gesture perfectly. Weisz is just as brilliant here as she was in last year’s My Cousin Rachel, all be it more extravagantly dressed. She’s brutal and cutting with every stroke while always using it as a front to disguise the true tenderness she holds for her Queen.

Olivia Colman has always been a great deliverer of deadpan comedy, but here as Anne she lets rip with childlike abandon and derangement, conveying humility and desperately fragile humanity that effortlessly counteracts the lunacy of her performance, one that has been allowed by her decadent regency.

There are also supporting roles from Mark Gatiss and Joe Alwyn in mostly thankless roles, but Nicholas Hoult continues to prove himself as a highly adaptable character actor on terrific form as 1st Earl of Oxford, Robert Harley.

It’s all inundated with that same awkward and disquieting comedy that Yorgos has so perfected at channelling in his work through his performers. By the time it approaches the climax, the gear has familiarly shifted into something much darker and more pathetic without skipping a single beat, and it’s only here at its uneasy final note that it might lose those more attuned to the havoc of its opening hour.

The cinematography by Robbie Ryan feels as invasively intimate as it does opulently gaudy as he assaults the viewer with lenses so wide and movements so close and discomforting, throwing the memory back to the 80s work of Peter Greenaway. Matched by some fantastically lit and decorated locations and costumes that grant it as woozy and nightmarish a feel as the stumbling notes of the score and overlapped editing.

Although pitched for the award season, and expect some nods in the direction of the lady of the hour, The Favourite is as outrageously entertaining as a farce as it is a skewing of its figures, it’s setting and the very concept of award bait drama.

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