With Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest piece of absurdity, also known as The Favourite, comes a sort of revisionism of the typical period drama. There is a sense of modernity to its leading ladies - who scream, swear, and hold all the cards - that is often lacking in the genre. Exploring the world of the Court and Queen in the early 18th century (a setting that has been somewhat overcast by other, perhaps more epic, historical tales such as in La Marseillaise or The Mission) Lanthimos grounds his farce in near-realism to hilarious effect.
The little information known about Queen Anne’s respective relationships with Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) serves as the springboard for the film’s story: these two women fight for the favour of Anne with increasing severity as political tensions rise in the film's backdrop. But this is not a love story. It isn’t even a love triangle. While Sarah holds a genuine devotion to her Queen, Abigail is not so lovestruck. To her, it’s a struggle for position, politic influence, and power. Though Sarah has good intentions at heart she, too, is tempted by the untouchable nature of whoever is in Anne’s favour. And so their fight begins.
To the fan of British drama, Colman is a recognised and well-loved figure. Her skilful range has been seen in everything from Channel 4’s Flowers, and Peep Show to ITV’s Broadchurch, and she brings her comic charm, as well as her compelling flair for tragedy, to her portrayal of the batty Queen Anne. In the midst of the courtly chaos, Colman acts as the film’s emotional centre. Reminding you that, despite the surrounding madness, there is some humanity at heart. She passes between flights of fancy to melancholia with as much nuance as pathos. All the while nailing Anne’s eccentricity through her faultless comedic timing and performance. Her range and scope makes her the standout of the film.
Alongside Colman’s Queen, Weisz and Stone are sharp in their wit and cruelly clever in their scheming. Weisz is electric as Sarah, a woman who is politically smart and uncompromising in her will. Hers is a layered performance, her desire for Anne merges with her enjoyment of governmental power in a deliciously grey moral landscape. On the other hand, Stone’s wily Abigail more closely toes the line of amorality in such a way that, however damning her actions are, you cannot help but hope for her success. In a world where maids take pleasure in savagely tricking their peers and men will push women down hills in order to get what they want, it is no surprise that these two women will do whatever it takes to ensure their safety and happiness and both actors excel in bringing them to life.
The Favourite is as loud in its visuals as it is its humour. Lush is the only word that comes close to describing the illustrious production design of the film. Production designer Fiona Crombie brings a richness to every room, every backdrop - with thick tapestries adorning the walls and sumptuous cakes on the tables. Meanwhile, Sandy Powell’s costume designs are as gaudy as they are telling of their wearers: as Abigail moves up the ranks she turns from the simple servant’s outfit to the (relatively) modest muslin dress of a chambermaid and finally to the striped satin gown of a Lady.
Whether a strength or a weakness, The Favourite is certainly the most accessible Lanthimos film. There are no murdered cats or lobsters here. Despite being constantly aware that the film is a Lanthimos piece, you are equally aware that he didn’t throw his hand in with the screenplay. The absurdism isn’t necessarily scaled back - a dancing sequence that toys with typical Georgian folk dances leaves you practically in tears - but it is, in fact, fitting within this setting. Nevertheless, this is a director who certainly knows how to play a comedy: pacing jokes and set pieces with a confidence that keeps you laughing throughout. Lanthimos has near-total control of his audience through his balance of humour and tragedy; you’ll be laughing until the exact point when he wants you to stop, instead allowing for a glimpse of the devastation hidden behind the curtains of this maddening court.