Friday 21 December 2018

Film Review: The Favourite

Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite puts a devilishly dark spin on English history, with three terrific central performances elevating a decidedly strange and distorted tale of power, war and sex.

The Favourite is set during the reign of Queen Anne (that's the start of the 18th century for history novices), during a time when England was caught in a bloody conflict with France. The film centres around the monarch (played with shrill and stroppy aplomb by Olivia Colman) and her confidant and lover Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), who essentially rules in Anne's stead while the increasingly ill queen revels in odd pursuits and pastimes, such as racing lobsters and caring for a flock of 17 rabbits.

The Grima Wormtongue to Anne's Theoden, Sarah's aspirations are thwarted when her impoverished cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives, seeking employment as a scullery maid. It isn't long until Abigail hits it off with the fickle Anne, and so begins a tense power struggle as the two women pull the poor queen in different directions, each seeking to win favour and usurp the other.

While the characters talk about and argue over battles, taxes, parliament and policy, this isn't the focus of the film. The war that England is fighting with France is merely window dressing for a smaller, more intimate power struggle between a trifecta of women who each possess, aspire to attain or cling to power in their own way. While blood is being spilled on the fields of Europe, a sneakier game of one-upmanship is at play in the royal court, with every snide remark, witty rebuke and steamy snog part and parcel of the back and forth. Think of it as a weirder, frillier version of Mean Girls, only with more wigs and less mathletics.

In all seriousness, The Favourite is a great example of a film that uses an unfamiliar setting (I can't say I knew an awful lot about Queen Anne before the film) to tell a familiar story in a compelling and exciting way. Wickedly funny and slathered in a coating of dark, mean humour, this is probably Lanthimos' most accessible film to date - it isn't as suffocatingly bleak or straight-up weird as The Killing of a Sacred Deer or The Lobster.

The palace is framed as a fragile ecosystem, where interlocking alliances, enemies and relationships are under the threat from everything from a knife in the back to a sneaky side-eye. This ecosystem is unsettled by Abigail's arrival, who acts as a challenger to Sarah's carefully curated web of whispers and lies.

This fragility affords The Favourite an element of delicate tension, where neither side is truly safe from sticking their foot in it. The back and forth is a delightful chess match, made all the better by three terrific and terrifying performances from Colman, Weisz and Stone.

All three are worthy of acclaim and awards season accolades: Colman is perfect as the malleable monarch who frequently descends into bouts of mirth and fits of tears; Weisz exudes a seething calm and confidence as she bends the court to her will; and Stone adds another string to her bow, mixing nasty manipulation with naive aspiration without being detestable.

Wide angles that reach into every corner of the lofty rooms and a fish-eye lens that bends and warps the walls further accentuates this notion of the palace as a place of manipulation and distortion; a bubble out of touch with reality and more concerned with decadent dances, duck racing and feasts filled with cake.

The Verdict: 9/10

Anchored by three brilliant performances (plus a scene-stealing supporting role for Nicolas Hoult!), The Favourite is a delightfully dark comedy that has quite a lot of substance if you scratch beneath the surface.

The Favourite is in cinemas across Australia from Boxing Day.

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