The Favourite is worthless history but brilliant cinema

by James Robins / 31 December, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - The Favourite movie

Intrigue, immorality and decadence in the court of Queen Anne are delivered in subversive style in The Favourite.

Royalty is always scandalous. Pick any era and you’ll find palaces stuffed with immorality, corruption, intrigue and outrage. It just so happens that Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has chosen the early-18th-century regency of Queen Anne, one of the bookends of the English Civil War, for his extraordinary film The Favourite: A bawdy billingsgate romp, not so much a comedy of manners as a comedy with no manners whatsoever.

Lady Marlborough (played flintily by Rachel Weisz) is the power behind the throne, more of a ruler than the volatile, impotent Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, soon to star in TV’s The Crown as QEII) who spends her days splayed out, ballooned with gout, wailing like a child. Then comes Abigail (Emma Stone), a fallen aristocrat who enters the household as a servant, then proceeds to inveigle herself into Anne’s inner sanctum. That’s not a metaphor. The manoeuvring, so to speak, extends to the Queen’s boudoir.

As for the men, well, one character says, “A man’s dignity is the only thing that stops him from running amok.” If so, there’s little dignity in sight. The court’s male constituents sport rouged cheeks and towering powdered wigs. They divide their time between farcical parliamentary debates and parlour games involving duck racing and pelting naked colleagues with fruit.

Lanthimos’ film is one of extreme flamboyance and decadence, warped through an absurdist vision that is his trademark and which has seen him compared to Stanley Kubrick. There are shades of Kubrick’s 18th-century-set Barry Lyndon here in scenes illuminated by gorgeous flickering candlelight and when Lanthimos breaks out the fisheye lenses.

It’s a film far removed from the fusty, genteel drama of Philippa Gregory adaptations and more iconoclastic and subversive than Blackadder could ever manage. At one point her majesty offers a simple explanation of Abigail’s charms: “I like it when she puts her tongue inside me.” This is not a period drama for those of delicate sensibilities.

It’s also worthless as a history lesson, but the true brilliance of The Favourite is in Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script, loaded with epigrammatic barbs and verbal jousts that clatter and crack. A quip can be a knife in the back.

Bringing anachronistic touches to period pieces can be tricky, though. When Sofia Coppola introduced modern music and language to Versailles in Marie Antoinette, it came off dreadfully kitsch. Here, it only adds to the bite of Lady Marlborough and Abigail’s scheming chicanery.

Witticisms, of course, are nothing without convincing performances. The central trio of Weisz, Colman and Stone are exceptional. What a relief to see these female characters drawn with such rich moral complexity: they are as cruel as they are clever.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★★

This article was first published in the January 5, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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