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The Favourite (2018) dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

Aristocratic scheming

This historical tale is set during the early 18th century when Britain is at war with France. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is too ill to rule effectively and leaves most of the real decision making to her advisor and secret lesbian lover Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (played by Rachel Weisz).

One day, Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives at the Royal Court. However, since bad times have befallen her after she was gambled away in a poker game by her father, she is reduced to working as a palace scullery maid. When she learns about Anne’s illness, she takes it upon herself to talk her way into her chamber and apply a form of herbal ointment to soothe some inflammations on her legs. When the queen reveals that the ointment has helped her condition, Sarah is impressed enough that she promotes Abigail to be her personal maid.

However, while the arrogant and ruthless Duchess pens Abigail as being trustworthy and kind-hearted to a fault, she fails to notice that the latter is gradually formulating a scheme of her own to regain her place amongst the aristocracy.

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Mainstream Lanthimos?

The Favourite may be a little more conventional and muted than idiosyncratic Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s earlier films. However, it is by just that: only a little. Imagine The Handmaiden and Lady Macbeth with a generous added dash of surrealism, and you might get a fairly accurate picture of what is in store. Also… expect plenty of Kubrick-style wide angle shots which are utilised in the most unlikely of contexts. Expect a dash of violence and bloodshed. Expect near cartoon-like cruelty on behalf of various aristocratic figures. Expect self-conscious animal references (ducks, rabbits). Expect the unceremonious twisting and upending of the usual relationship and power dynamics. Expect some of what the BBFC terms “very strong language” (the word “cunt” is thrown into the dialogue on numerous occasions). Expect chapter title cards which use a font seemingly cribbed from the opening credits of Alien. Expect an ambiguous, hallucinatory ending.

While The Favourite is hardly lightweight in tone, it is very much a comedy at heart. However, its humour is the blackest of the black, its satire of the self-serving scheming of the moneyed classes the most caustic and hilariously blatant we can imagine. At the same time, it is also a lesbian love triangle story where, at the end of the day, none of the protagonists are shown in a particularly good light. Abigail may initially seem like the heroine of the piece - but once she has inevitably got her own back on the social class which has forsaken her, she turns out to be no better than the rest of them. While she never commits actions of extremity comparable to those of Katherine from Lady Macbeth, she’s still a rather coldly calculating piece of work behind Emma Stone’s button-cute doe eyes and unassuming demeanour.

Rachel Weisz in The Favourite

Sarah’s character follows practically the opposite trajectory through the story as her coolly brutal grasp on power is unseated. Thanks to Rachel Weisz’s multilayered performance, it is possible to end up feeling a little sympathy for her after what she is put through later on. At the same time, since this all happens following her treating Abigail in a manner which would make the average school bully blanch, it’s hard to entirely escape the feeling that she is merely receiving a taste of her own medicine.

While Anne (played by Olivia Colman) is something of a hobbled victim to the scheming of those surrounding her, she’s such a ludicrously stroppy and demanding missy that once again, it’s difficult for us to root for her. Amongst the three actresses (all of whom have received Golden Globe and SAG nominations), Colman is arguably the finest of the lot with a performance which blends pathos and pomposity in equal measure.

In this case, the lack of empathy for the characters is not a flaw; it only serves to enhance the feeling that we are watching a car crash of manipulative nastiness playing out in slow motion before our very eyes. The Favourite is yet another strange, compulsive Yorgos Lanthimos classic.

Runtime: 119 mins

Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

Script: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara

Starring: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, James Smith, Mark Gatiss

Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆

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