Olivia Colman’s Golden Globe win on Sunday night may have alerted you to the fact that her performance in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is very special indeed. If you feel you can’t stomach another chocolate-box period drama then fear not because The Favourite is anything but. Olivia Colman is Queen Anne, who reigned from 1702 to 1714, but has not heretofore seemed ripe for drama in the way that monarchs such as Queen Victoria or George III have. In an inspired script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, we can see just how wrong this misapprehension was.
Colman’s Anne is mercurial, corpulent and gout-ridden. She is often monstrous but Colman is beady enough to locate the tragedy in her character as well as displaying her generosity and appealing sense of mischief. She owns 17 rabbits, each one a symbol of her 17 pregnancies (“Some were born as blood, some without breath, and some were with me a very brief time”).
Anne is not a canny ruler and relies on the utterly capable Lady Sarah Churchill, played by Rachel Weisz, her friend and lover. Sarah tells Anne when her maquillage makes her look like a badger, tends the sores on her legs by massaging them and advises her on matters of state as well as joining her in the royal four-poster bed.
Sarah’s impoverished cousin Abigail Hill, played by Emma Stone, soon arrives at court face down in dirt and this is when the fun really begins. Nicholas Hoult, as leader of the Opposition in a preposterous wig, tells Abigail “Favour is a breeze that shifts all the time” and the newcomer and her cousin are soon engaged in a battle for the queen’s affections. Men are only ever a sideshow in a film that absolutely romps through the Bechdel Test – the women in this film so far from talking about men, only talk about each other unless they are discussing the war with France or the land tax. The sheer brio of the three lead performers is staggering and one can’t help but notice how much more fun Weisz seems to be having than in the recent Disobedience where her lesbian love affair was of a far gloomier kind.
There is a kind of Alice in Wonderland quality to The Favourite, enhanced by a terrifically off-kilter soundtrack of Handel and Elton John, as well as Robbie Ryan’s wide-angled, dizzying cinematography. There hasn’t been a costume drama like it since Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract. The three women are dressed in monochrome throughout by the brilliant costume designer Sandy Powell. When Abigail first attends the Queen in her bedchamber, she is seen in a white nightgown but as she gains ascendance and the triumvirate engage in a power triangle, they all wear mixed black and white outfits. The rabbits, incidentally, also conform to this monochrome palette. If all this sounds ridiculous well, it partly is, but it also manages to be rivetingly entertaining and surprisingly moving. And who, after all, could fail to love a film that lists a cast member as “Nude Pomegranate Tory”?
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