If Yorgos Lanthimos set out to make a film about the Trump presidency I don’t imagine it would bear much difference to The Favourite. Olivia Colman plays the Mad Queen Anne as a quixotic infant acting on her every whim, whose petulant comments often bear uncanny resemblance to the President’s Twitter outbursts. Rachel Weisz is Sarah Churchill, her trusted favourite advisor and friend, and Emma Stone is Sarah’s poor and disgraced cousin Abigail who schemes herself into the palace to rival her mistress for the Queen’s favour.
Maybe the most prominent maverick of modern indie cinema, Lanthimos offers a razor-sharp and brutally hilarious take on the period drama, working from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s ingenious script. He grounds it thoroughly in a farcical vein, engineering a series of whip-smart machinations between factions with a good deal of bawdy humour and surreal set-pieces. Some of the biggest laughs came from a slow-motion duck race and a couple of hilarious dance sequences in which Lanthimos pushes the ludicrous tradition of court dancing just that little bit too far, as is his way.
Lanthimos, like Wes Anderson, has an extremely specific style which all of his actors comply with – an incredibly mannered, almost stilted delivery and a juxtaposition between imperceptible micro-expressions and slapstick outbursts. Weisz, rejoining Lanthimos after The Lobster, sets the tone as the regal Sarah, with the rest of the cast following her example. Her face is composed, unreadable and her delivery is absolutely note-perfect. Anne, in contrast, is anything but queenly. She trails around her chambers in her nightclothes, hair streaming behind her, feeding her rabbits or wailing in pain from her gout. She eats cake, throws it up into a servant’s proffered bucket, and resumes eating the cake once again with a vomit-covered face. She has no conception of the reality outside her palace, and is totally unable to see past the individual politicians in her court circle to what they represent. All her decisions are based on whims and she remains absolutely nonplussed by the notion of war – at one point exclaiming ‘we must fight for…what we fight for!’
This is the part of a lifetime for Colman, one of the UK’s most venerated character actors, capable of absurdist comedy and heart-breaking sincerity in equal measure. She fits perfectly into Lanthimos’ vision, expertly rendering Anne’s frequent mood changes, from childlike naivety to bitter fury and wailing despair. We are afforded a glimpse into Anne’s personal tragedy, learning that she has lost 14 children, but remain critical of a system which allows such a troubled and incompetent individual absolute power – a prescient comment on contemporary politics. It is hard to imagine an actor with more range, and I predict Colman’s Best Actress Award at Venice will be followed by a succession of nominations as awards season gears up. The Favourite marks Lanthimos’ first collaboration with Robbie Ryan, known for his more intimate, handheld work Andrea Arnold’s films, which he ditches here in favour of super-wide shots, often from skewed perspectives and disjointed angles. Much use is made of the black and white chequered floors, and the profusion of chandeliers and orange-glowing candles in the pitch-black night. An incessantly present soundtrack combines classical pieces by Handel, Vivaldi and Bach with modern pieces from Nils Frahm and rising star composer Anna Meredith. The only slightly off-key note is the ending, which didn’t quite match up to the high-strung composure of the rest of the film, and rather overdoes a slow fade.