Friday 20 September 2019

Director Yorgos Lanthimos talks women behaving badly in Oscar frontrunner 'The Favourite'

Director Yorgos Lanthimos talks to Paul Whitington about defying the conventions of the period drama in his new film 'The Favourite', already an Oscar frontrunner

Holding court: Olivia Colman as Queen Anne and Rachel Weisz as her confidante Sarah Churchill
Holding court: Olivia Colman as Queen Anne and Rachel Weisz as her confidante Sarah Churchill
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Queen Anne was a most unfortunate monarch. Thrust reluctantly into power by an unlikely dynastical quirk, she was surrounded at all times by bullies and enemies, was pushed into prosecuting several unpopular wars, was overweight, had terrible health, endured more than a dozen miscarriages and watched her two surviving children die in infancy. She ruled for 12 years and was not quite 50 when she died, in the summer of 1714.

Thereafter, and thanks mainly to an unflattering memoir by her former friend Lady Sarah Churchill, Anne went down in history as a histrionic, unstable, whimsical woman, totally unfit to rule. But that's not the full story, as Yorgos Lanthimos's new film The Favourite demonstrates.

In it, Olivia Colman is Anne in mid-reign, an unhappy, twitchy woman who's wheeled around her vast palace in a bath chair and tended to by her friend and confidante Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Sarah's married to the cheerfully bellicose Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), and uses her position to bend the queen to her formidable bill. She even shares a bed with the monarch, but faces a wily rival when her pretty but penniless cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) turns up. And after Abigail has wormed her way into Anne's affections, the gloves come off in spectacular fashion.

It's a wonderful film, by turns hilarious and heartbreaking, but seems an unlikely choice for Greek writer/director Lanthimos, who has specialised till now in edgy, absurdist modern dramas in which the thin veneer of civilisation seems in imminent danger of collapse. One imagines that a man used to working fast on tight budgets might have been put off by the complexities of shooting a film set in the early 18th century. In fact, he's been plotting the film for a decade.

"There was an existing script," he tells me, "which was not quite how I would have wanted it. But I was really interested in the story, and then we spent nine years developing it, finding a new writer and working very closely with him, so, by the end of it, it was even more my project than any of the other ones that I've co-written. And that was always the goal, to make it my own and find a particular tone."

That he most definitely does.

"In general, when you're dealing with something that happened as long ago as all this, I think it's pretty safe to assume that not everything that we know is accurate. But from the beginning our goal was never to make a loyal historical film, or make it a history lesson, we just wanted to make something that feels in its own right complete, and relevant to our times."

The character of Abigail, friendless but resourceful, is our way into the palace, and the story. When we first meet her she's crammed into a cheap carriage being ogled by a fellow passenger, and when she reaches her destination she falls from the carriage into a filthy gutter. After that, the only way is up.

"The important thing with Abigail," he says, "was to make her someone you'd understand no matter what terrible things she has to do to survive. So we wanted to have you feel for her as well as much as was possible by the end of it, and for all three women, of course, because all of them kind of behave badly and outrageously."

Olivia Colman's Anne is a fascinating creation, an almost broken, wildly staring woman who acts out like a child but is also capable of great tenderness and kindness. "She's been through a lot and she's half mad probably and certainly mercurial," Lanthimos says. "But again, you feel for her when you begin to understand what she went through, and sometimes I guess she reverts to child-like behaviour in order to protect herself, and avoid responsibility.

"But at the same time she does try to manipulate the people around her to get the love she so desperately needs, so you judge her, you feel for her, you see how she acts and you're appalled, but she's lovable at the same time. And, of course, for all that I have to thank Olivia as well. You can try to put it all on paper but if you don't have an actor like that who can convey all these different aspects of such a complex character, it's not going to work."

The Favourite scrupulously avoids the fusty stiffness that afflicts most period dramas, and Lanthimos now and then throws in moments of absurdity that jar you awake.

"I wanted it to feel real and modern in a way. With the screenplay, we decided that we would not even attempt to try and make people sound the way they would have spoken, and we didn't want that preconceived notion of people having to physically behave in this stilted, proper fashion... It was all a way of defying the conventions of the period drama. What we're doing is we're being inspired by a period and a story and its people, and we're creating our own world, and in as many instances and as many elements as we could, we incorporated modern elements, like the dance, the dialogue, we did it with the costumes too in subtle ways."

All of this was achieved by Lanthimos and his Irish producer Ed Guiney on a surprisingly modest budget.

"You know you're surprised to find out how much it does cost to make a period film, there's those locations, the costumes, moving art which is very old, there's a very specialised department that has to do that. Most of it we shot at Hatfield House, but at Hampton Court as well. It was challenging, definitely."

It's a far cry from the DIY spirit of Lanthimos' early films, which were made for half nothing with the help of a network of friends. "There was never a lot of support in Greece for film-making, so we decided we would make films on our own with friends and with no money. Dogtooth was made for €250,000, Alps was €150,000, Kinetta was €150,000, we just paid for the necessary stuff, some equipment, post-production, but the great thing about making films then and there was that people were hungry to make films, and they gave whatever they could, you know, lending their own houses to film in, or their cars, so it was that kind of spirit, it's very special. I made three films in that way, but I couldn't keep on doing it, I couldn't keep asking people for favours."

In 2014, Yorgos moved to London.

"And that's the funny thing, you move to London, you're thinking you're going to be making films there, but it ends up just shooting anywhere around the world. The Lobster was in Ireland, Killing of a Sacred Deer was in America. Only now have I managed to shoot a film where I actually live. But it's a base, it's good to be in London, and in Europe - well, in Europe for the moment!" There really is no avoiding the subject of Brexit.

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