Movie review: The Favourite

The director of The Lobster delivers a strange but fascinating costume drama

The Favourite
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
With Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn

Cult director Yorgos Lanthimos brings a new perspective to the often stodgy royal costume drama. The Favourite, set in the latter part of the reign of Britain's Queen Anne, has tied with Roma for the most Academy Award nominations, at 10, and has already won over 100 prizes including 10 at the British Independent Film Awards.

While the setting is a palace in Britain in the early 1800s, the backstabbing plot is more like something from I, Claudius or Julius Caesar. Two female cousins vie for the Queen’s attention. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is easily distracted and never fully up to speed on what is going on, and what is going on, among other things, is an unpopular war with France and unpopular high taxes to pay for it.

Whoever can grab her ear has a good chance at influencing global events. Aside from that, the queen controls vast resources and can hand out titles, money and palaces, as well as take them away.

A down-on-her-luck young woman, Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), arrives at court looking for a position. Her father has gambled away the family estate and ruined her reputation.

Abigail seeks the aid of her cousin, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Lady Marlborough at first controls all access to the oblivious queen.

Once Abigail gets her foot in the door as a lowly assistant in the kitchen, it becomes a high-stakes chess game. There is more than politics at stake. Writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara also suppose there was a lesbian love triangle at the root of the bitter rivalry.

The drama comes from seeing how far each of the two rivals will go in their next campaign to shut the other out.

The queen has poor health, and that is used as an excuse by both Abigail and Lady Marlborough to keep the queen locked away for their own purposes.

All the film’s characters are vain and self-centered, playing mean pranks to pass the time, and forging dubious alliances to fill their own pockets. Some people hanging around the court seem more concerned with their clothes than with the outcome of the war in France.

While these characters all historical, the story is a very free adaptation of events, much like Miloš Forman’s Amadeus was, creating an all-out rivalry where one likely did not really exist.

The action us mostly restricted to the palace halls, with a few excursions into the woods and briefly some other interiors.

The palace seems like a maze, with even the queen getting lost as she becomes increasingly confused. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan uses fish-eye lenses to make the long halls seem like, distorted inescapable traps.

Most of the film was shot in and around real palaces, which helped stretch the rather modest budget.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos came to international attention with his 2015 absurd black comedy The Lobster, which also featured Rachel Weisz. His 2017 psychological thriller The Killing of a Sacred Deer, starring Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman, was competent but didn’t reach as wide an audience.

He is back on track with The Favourite, keeping true to his eccentric nature while delivering a film with enough mainstream appeal to also be a popular hit.

The Favourite manages to blend the dry palace costume drama with numerous innovative cinematic ideas, like Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract previously did.

All three female leads are nominated for Oscars, and the film is up for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, plus some more technical nominations.

The work in every category was top rate, and the film while bizarre is also mesmerizing. It has tough competition in many of the categories, though.

Fans of costume dramas, LGBT cinema or revenge tales, though, won’t want to miss it.

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