This devilishly funny, beautifully directed period dramedy is going to be one of the films of 2019 (even if it did come out in 2018 in the US and the American Film Institute selected it as one of their top 10 for 2018). From start to end it is engrossing, shocking, hilarious, fun, beautifully designed and shot. Baring the characters, there is almost nothing historically accurate about the film. What writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, and director Yorgos Lanthimos have done with The Favourite is take these characters, a few of their eccentricities (especially in the case of Queen Anne) and the favoured status of Lady Sarah Churchill (Lady Marlborough), her fall and replacement by Abigail Hill and turned it into a stunning film that just has fun with itself by playing with history and making it subtly modern.
From the very beginning you know The Favourite is just going to go for it, Robert Harley, the Tory leader of the opposition (Nicholas Hoult) comes face to face with Lady Sarah (Rachel Wiesz) and shouts ‘cunt’ at her. Don’t be fooled by this, it’s not a vulgar film or applying modern language to it, the C word was in common parlance at the time and is used through out the film but not gratuitously. This is a film with a lesbian relationship between Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and Lady Sarah and then Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), but while it’s clearly there, the way it’s depicted is far from explicit. Emma Stone is witness to the throes of passion between the wheelchair bound Queen and Lady Sarah, but much of the scene isn’t given over to showing us. Hidden in the dark, it’s Abigail’s face, lit with the warm orange glow of a candle that tells us what’s happening, reactions that go from shock to intrigue on her part. The use of candlelight and shots like this are a signature of the film.
The judicious use of lighting and music are key elements to this sublime production that strips out the unnecessary. Lighting is simple and purposeful. The music score elegantly mirrors the feelings of characters and isn’t afraid to be stripped back to one repetitive note, or the point where its absence is as important as its inclusion. But the production can’t be talked about without drawing attention to the stunning cinematography of Robbie Ryan, the use of shots from bellow, the fish eye lens and tracking shots becomes like a silent narrator allowing us to view and peek in on goings on.
The detailed thoughtfulness of The Favourite’s production flows through into the costume design by Sarah Powell. The costumes even in their elaborate glory are monochromatic and used to signal the changing circumstances of characters and the political positions they hold. Lady Sarah’s have a strong male shape to them, Abigail Hill’s costumes change and develop as her standing does. The town dwelling merchant class Whig politicians lead by Lord Godolphin (James Smith) and country dwelling, tax paying, land owning Torys lead by Harley (Hoult) are clearly differentiated in their politics by their dress. The Whigs in simple brown wigs and somber burgundy and green clothing, contrast starkly with the Tories in overly bouffant wigs, fine sliver fabrics with large walking sticks as affectations, and powdered faces and makeup. Harley, who insist a man must look ‘pretty’ sports a beauty spot that, as the film progresses, manages to grow and transform with comic effect from a traditional black dot to a star and then a large roaring lion that takes up his entire cheek.
The comedy comes is dry sharp short bits via the interactions of characters rather than one joke after another. There’s a witty comment about the conduct of gentlemen of the time when making love to a woman, while the dancing is the dancing of the day and then starts to include voguing and break-dancing.
The Favourite’s three female leads are of course the centre of the drama and much comedy. All three provide stellar performances that cannot be overstated. The sorrow that Coleman brings to the role is heart wrenching, and her Golden Globe and other nominations are well deserved. But the three supporting male leads are equally deserving of praise providing the political backdrop and much of the comedy with their buffoonery. The degree of buffoonery – duck racing, the barbs traded on a sofa between Harley and Godolphin, Harley and his early interactions with Abigail – makes this a film of female power and influence. The men, in what is meant to be a man’s world, vie for power, power that is conditional on their relationship with the three female leads and their standing. They come off looking silly and incapable, needing the help of the women to achieve anything.
The only slight, and I mean slight, mark against this tremendous and exquisite film is the ending. As has become fashionable with smaller budget art films, the ending is just the ending; it’s a slow played continuous shot that leaves you feeling empty. Of course such endings are supposed to reflect that life carries on (think Call Me By Your Name), it doesn’t have neat endings. But the great shame of it is that it leaves you deflated and with a different lasting impression of the film compared with the one that had been building through the rest of it.
The Favourite(5 / 5)
Feature Image – Rachel Wiesz stars as Lady Sarah in Fox Searchlight Pictures’ “THE FAVOURITE.”