Saturday 15 June 2019

Paul Whitington's film of the week: Olivia Colman is superb as a monarch on the edge in The Favourite

Infighting at the court of Queen Anne in Yorgos Lanthimos’ darkly comic drama, says Paul Whitington

Rachel Weisz (left) is well cast as the steely and formidable Sarah but Olivia Colman dominates the film
Rachel Weisz (left) is well cast as the steely and formidable Sarah but Olivia Colman dominates the film
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Since Yorgos Lanthimos broke through in the late 2000s with his edgy and subversive Greek dramas Kinetta and Dogtooth, he has come to specialise in vaguely dystopian, starkly modern films in which the normal social rules seem to have been suspended and the thwarted protagonists are afflicted by emotional catatonia. In films like The Lobster and Killing of a Sacred Deer, middle class folk have forgotten how to love, and how to talk politely to one another: the veneer of civilisation is thin, and once it collapses Lanthimos' characters fly at each other tooth and nail.

He is probably the last film-maker you'd expect to take on a period drama, yet here he is in the court of Queen Anne. It seems a strange move till you watch the film, and discover that all of the director's recurring themes have been successfully transplanted to early 18th century England.

For this is no polite and sanitised heritage drama: The Favourite is underlain with a kind of simmering, punkish anarchy, and Lanthimos misses no opportunity to puncture the polite conventions of historical cinema and remind us that these are flesh and blood men and women, not tasteful waxworks. Mainly women, actually, because at the heart of Lanthimos' witty, wicked, almost spitefully insightful drama is a ménage a trois involving three clever but variously afflicted females. Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) arrives at Queen Anne's household without title, position or a penny to her name. She's there at the pleasure of Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), a distant cousin, and the Queen's closest confidante. But any notions that she might have received preferential treatment from her relative are quickly dispelled when she's sent to the kitchens to work as a skivvy.

The Queen (Olivia Colman) is a high-strung woman, sickly and histrionic and prone to seeing enemies everywhere. She's not wrong: England's politicians and soldiers, led by Sarah Churchill's husband the Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), resent taking orders from a female, and reckon the monarch can be easily controlled. Sarah Churchill has been placed at the court for just that purpose, but isn't always easy to control herself. The swaggering matriarch of an increasingly influential family (Diana Spencer and Winston Churchill are among her illustrious descendants, and Winston wrote a very entertaining book about her exploits), Sarah knows her mind and speaks it, and seems to have Anne under her thumb, pushing her towards ever greater engagement in the war with France so dear to her husband's heart.

But Abigail is too smart to linger long below stairs, and soon Sarah has a rival. After Abigail uses herbs to tend to Anne's bedsores, the monarch warms to the girl, and begins spending more time with her. There appears to have been a sexual dimension to Sarah's relationship with the Queen, but Abigail's perfectly prepared to roll her sleeves up in this regard too, and soon she and Sarah are locked in a gloves-off battle for survival.

Yorgos Lanthimos handles this story with great wit, and skill. At times the tone is broadly comic: Abigail and Sarah's tit-for-tat war reminded me of Tom and Jerry, and Olivia Colman's meltdowns have a whiff of Blackadder about them. But these are real women, not satirical caricatures, and as the film deepens you begin to appreciate their various dilemmas.

Emma Stone as Abigail Hill in ‘The Favourite’
Emma Stone as Abigail Hill in ‘The Favourite’

If Sarah Churchill had been a man, she'd have been among the most admired Britons of her age, but her bellicose decisiveness is seen as unfeminine, and she must use the Queen to further her family's ends. Abigail Hill is sly and ruthless and will resort to any trick to get her way. But for her the stakes are huge, and in a calm speech early on she describes the abuse, rape and general cruelty one is expected to endure as a woman without position.

Anne herself seems a monster of self-absorption until one realises that here is a woman who has truly suffered. She endured more than a dozen miscarriages, and the two children she bore died in infancy: these tragedies have driven her half mad, but her inner resolve is not entirely broken, as Sarah and her politicians will discover.

This is a delightful movie, funny, absurd, anarchic and profound. Emma Stone is excellent as the tight-lipped, ever resourceful Abigail, and Rachel Weisz is well cast as the steely and formidable Sarah. But Olivia Colman dominates the film with a fearless, nuanced, fascinating portrayal of a broken-hearted woman.

The Favourite (15A, 119mins) - 5 stars

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