Movies

The Favourite is a raucous comedy of bad manners

If you haven’t yet come across the films of Yorgos Lanthimos —
well, congratulations. Although a festival darling — he’s won
prizes at Cannes for 2009’s Dogtooth, 2015’s The
Lobster
and 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer
his habit of wringing deadpan performances out of otherwise
expressive actors has always left me cold.

But he may have found the perfect match in The
Favourite
, set in the court of Britain’s Queen Anne during
the early 18th century, when the dawning Age of Reason was
still struggling to clear away the wreckage of the late Middle
Ages. Deadpan cool was a matter of courtly survival.

Also, Lanthimos’s previous films were scripted by him and
writing partner Efthymis Filippou. This one was started 20
years ago by British writer Deborah Davis, later worked on by
Australia’s Tony McNamara. The result plays like a feminist
Blackadder, bawdy and clever and almost proudly
historically inaccurate. (Anne’s prodigious number of failed
pregnancies is, alas, a truth.)

Weisz,
Stone.
Atsushi Nishijima/Fox Searchlight Films via
AP

Olivia Colman stars as the dyspeptic Queen Anne — and, in a
perfect bit of serendipity, will next year be taking over from
Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II in the third season of
Netflix’s The Crown. Petulant and gouty (as Anne, not
Elizabeth), she is close to Lady Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough
(Rachel Weisz), who uses her position to argue on behalf of her
husband (Mark Gatiss).

He, in turn, is caught between Godolphin, the Prime Minister
(James Smith), and Harley, the leader of the opposition
(Nicholas Hoult), on matters of one of those Anglo-French wars
that English history can’t do without. Though, truth be told,
the men in this movie are mostly pawns. Lady Sarah wields the
most power, at least until the arrival of her cousin Abigail
(Emma Stone), whose circumstances are so low she has nowhere to
fall but up.

The cousins are initially coolly civil. “I liked your father,”
offers Sarah. “He had charm to burn.” And then, remembering
that the man killed himself by setting fire to his house and
then staying home, she adds: “And I suppose he did.”

But as Abigail worms her ways into the Queen’s favour, each
woman’s arsenal expands from rapier wit to include (if not
actual rapiers) flattery, blackmail, assault, poison — real and
metaphorical — and sex. Historians are unequally divided as to
whether Queen Anne leaned toward lesbianism; The
Favourite
has her falling over for it.

The tone of the film is at times scattershot, by turns funny,
vulgar, both or neither. I have a great example of “both” that
includes the word “tongue” and should probably not be printed
in the newspaper. In any case, there are far more hits than
misses, especially when the wicked screenplay flirts with
modernity, as when Harley attempts to enlist Abigail’s services
as a spy. “Think on it,” he tells her cheerfully. “No
pressure.”

Lanthimos chose to shoot much of the action through a fisheye
lens — either that or he forgot to bring any others with him —
and throws in some odd elements of sound design. At times, you
would swear there’s an argument bleeding through the walls from
the cinema next door, while the score alternates between
period-appropriate Baroque one minute, then something that
sounds like a violin-powered metronome or an 18th-century time
bomb.

But these are mere distractions to a darkly funny story of
courtly intrigue and noble comeuppance featuring three actors
at the peak of their game. Stone, in particular, is very good
at never quite letting on — to other characters or indeed the
audience — what her endgame is.

When The Killing of a Sacred Deer was befuddling
critics at Cannes, Lanthimos went on record that it was a
comedy, though few agreed. I don’t know what he meant this one
to be, but it’s his funniest by far.

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