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.



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


PM announces ban on all military-style semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles
103805 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Crime

PM announces ban on all military-style semi-automa…

by RNZ

Ms Ardern pledged the day after the terrorist massacre that "gun laws will change" and would be announced within 10 days of the attack.

Read more
No mention of right-wing extremist threats in 10 years of GCSB & SIS public docs
103770 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Politics

No mention of right-wing extremist threats in 10 y…

by Jane Patterson

There is not one specific mention of the threat posed by white supremacists or right-wing nationalism in 10 years of security agency documents.

Read more
Deirdre Kent: The woman who faced down the wrath of Big Tobacco
103798 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Profiles

Deirdre Kent: The woman who faced down the wrath o…

by Joanna Wane

As the face of anti-smoking lobby group ASH, Deirdre Kent played a vital role in the smokefree New Zealand movement.

Read more
Māori leaders say acts of terror nothing new in NZ
103766 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Currently

Māori leaders say acts of terror nothing new in NZ…

by Leigh-Marama McLachlan

Māori leaders are calling on New Zealanders to reject the notion that 'this is not us' in the wake of the Christchurch mosque attacks.

Read more
Cynthia Millar and the strange beauty of the ondes martenot
103723 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Music

Cynthia Millar and the strange beauty of the ondes…

by Elizabeth Kerr

The sci-fi sound of the ondes martenot is playing a key part in the upcoming performance of an epic symphony.

Read more
Christchurch gunsmith warned police about white supremacists last year
103662 2019-03-20 00:00:00Z Crime

Christchurch gunsmith warned police about white su…

by RNZ

A Canterbury gunsmith living and working says he told police less than six months ago they needed to look at the rise of white supremacists with guns.

Read more
12 moments that show how New Zealanders have united in the face of terror
103665 2019-03-20 00:00:00Z Social issues

12 moments that show how New Zealanders have unite…

by Vomle Springford

In the following days after the Christchurch terror attacks, New Zealand has come together to support the victims of the shootings.

Read more
How modern art inspired the music of Anna Clyne's Abstractions
103649 2019-03-20 00:00:00Z Music

How modern art inspired the music of Anna Clyne's…

by The Listener

The works of the English contemporary composer feature in the NZSO’s forthcoming The Planets series.

Read more