Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018, Ireland-UK-USA
writers: Deborah Davis & Tony MacNamara
There was something about Lanthimos’ previous features ‘The Lobster’ and ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ that didn’t quite hit that final mark for me: good play but no last-minute goal or touchdown or whatever sports analogy you prefer (perhaps another viewing will change my mind). But there is none of that feeling of the point not quite being made to ‘The Favourite.’
In interviews, Olivia Coleman tells of how Lanthimos likes to leave things open and unrequited, to let the actors find their own answers – and doubtless the audience too. This reaps rewards in ‘The Favourite’ in that the three lead women eschew Lathimos’ previous deadpan style and give full-blooded performances that undoubtably makes this that most unlikely beast: a crossover Lanthimos film. Lured by the promise of the cosy tropes of costume drama, audiences get something far odder. It operates with the elegance associated with period drama and the iconoclastic sensibility and dirty words of a sketch show.
Through the vast rooms and corridors of court, everyone wants the Queen’s favour: the men for politics, the women just to thwart oppression. There’s the surface tomfoolery and absurdism, but always the tragic underpins it all; not least in the ever present seventeen rabbits representing the children Queen Anne has lost (when interviewed by Simon Mayo, Coleman said that Anne was entitled to be as mad as she pleased after such loss). But it’s also there in the background details of what the women must do to survive; Abigail’s fall from grace, for example, and her determination to rise again. Don’t come for historical accuracy (those rabbits are a fabrication, for example, but Screenrant provides an overview of the true story) but there’s plenty of emotional truths here. And always the hint of danger (the shooting range) as well as a topping of a little uncomfortable slapstick (watch for “Nude pomegranate Tory”). But mostly there is also a litany of one-liners and bon mots to savour – “You look like a badger.” “…and something called a ‘pineapple’.” – and the cast relish them.
The regal period drama has always been a home for dry wit and satire, and 'The Favourite' brings a slight lampooning of the genre and of history that opens it up without recourse to total veracity. It’s a woman’s film predominantly and Coleman and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone wallow in the opportunity and captivate and delight without Lanthimos’ direction getting in the way. It’s three brilliant performances plus probably a career best from Nicholas Hoult. The screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony MacNamara provide a great script for them to get their teeth into. It gives Lanthimos a solid through-line that is at once playful and cruel but with a wide streak of empathy and sympathy that hasn’t previously been part of this director’s provocations. It also has a final note that, although it’s apparently all games and one-upmanship, no one wins. A thorough delight with a sour bite.