If action blockbusters aren’t the seasonal treat you’re craving, The Favourite might be the perfect cool, interior escape from summer heat and post-Christmas sales you’re needing.
A dark and darkly-funny historical drama that transports its audience to the gauche, gaudy and grimy palaces and estates of 18th century England, The Favourite is one of the most decorated and acclaimed films of the year, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2018 Venice International Film Festival.
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos takes on this unorthodox royal comedy, a British/US co-production. The Favourite, while much more accessible than his previous work including somewhat challenging The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, has the lush, confident cinematography, startling visuals and original outlook that’s a hallmark of his films.
The story revolves around the court of a fragile – physically, mentally and emotionally – Queen Anne, crippled by agonising gout, loneliness and loss, who is nominally making decisions about Great Britain’s war with France (England and Scotland having been united during her rule).
But in fact, she has abrogated serious responsibility to the Duchess of Marlborough (played by Rachel Weisz), the childhood friend and ‘favourite’ who rules the court with ruthless efficiency behind the scenes. Meanwhile, the miserable queen carb-loads for comfort and plays with her pet rabbits, occasionally trying to make decisions and rule a country at war.
When the duchess’s younger cousin Abigail – freshly ruined by her aristocratic father’s debauchery – arrives as a servant at court, her powerful relative takes uncharacteristic pity on her, elevating the whip-smart young woman to a role of some small influence. Beneath a schedule of foppish, trite entertainments and endless gorging, the palace heaves with secrets, intrigues, ruthless power plays and rigid hierarchies.
Abigail, played as Bambi on steroids by the luminous Emma Stone, quickly discovers the most scandalous and damaging of secrets and slavishly stakes her claim as emerging court favourite. The scene is set for an escalating battle-to-the-death with the Duchess for the affections of the queen and the ultimate power in her court.
This is a world in which the male characters are bit players: be-wigged dandies, grovelling and threatening the better-connected women as they seek to influence the mercurial Anne.
The prime minister, for instance, is more interested in the exploits of his prize racing duck than the war effort. His political foil is the opposition leader Lord Harley (Nicholas Hoult), who is convinced that tax hikes for England’s rural nobles to a fund a war they have no certainty of winning, is a dangerous folly.
But it’s the triad of complex, flawed and fascinating female characters and their power dynamic that makes The Favourite such a dark, wicked and silky treasure. Olivia Colman (The Iron Lady, Hyde Park on Hudson, The Lobster) is magnificent as the damaged Anne: alternating flakiness, pathos, crippling self-doubt and physical pain for fury, duty and regal imperiousness.
Stone and Weisz shine too, and make a trio of fabulous and, at times, frightening women that drive The Favourite with a tension and pace most period dramas lack.
The look of the film, too, is astonishing and delicious. There are no studio-lit, mannered drawing rooms in The Favourite: it’s grainy and the close-ups flood the screen.
Light pours in from windows or not at all: when characters creep around the palace, they do so in meagre candlelight with the whole intrigue-loaded court around them, shrouded in darkness. There’s mud, blood, snow and profanity and, despite the trappings of excessive wealth and fashion, a sense of base human frailty underneath the ridiculous fluffy wigs and foppish amusements. All of which might just make The Favourite the ideal sweetmeat – delicate, decadent but surprisingly satisfying – for the silly season.
The Favourite is in cinemas around Australia from December 26.
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