3-17 January, DCA
Those familiar with the films of Yorgos Lanthimos will be aware of his deft use of subtly morbid humour as a tool with which to expose and comment on the absurdity of the human condition. The characters of his previous works, such as those seen in The Lobster or The Killing of a Sacred Deer, have inhabited unreal settings that defy natural law and order, reflected in clipped conversation and emotionally devoid dialogue. The Favourite does not wholly subscribe to this directorial trademark, instead pushing itself to the opposite end of the scale, and as such joyfully loses itself in the endlessly emotive, with Lanthimos’ period setting becoming a wonderfully camp and well-dressed playground for his leading women to throw themselves into.
At its heart, The Favourite is a character study, the war and the politics of the period piece narrative becoming background noise, used as a device through which to further our understanding of these women with each conversation or glance bringing us closer to their motives, wants and needs. Olivia Colman is, as always, a powerhouse of toeing the line between the comic and tragic, her portrayal of the often spoilt and childish Queen Anne a veritable feast of polarized emotion. Lanthimos’ intimate camerawork divulges secrets with each closeup of a glistening eye or curled lip, guiding us to dissect each character’s motivations as we study their face. Perhaps the most surprising performance, comes from Emma Stone as Abigail. Her huge blue eyes are filled with a patient and conceited determination, and she flits through her opulent surroundings with such a believable porcelain charm that makes the moments we see the true grit hiding beneath her persona that much more deliciously watchable.
A visually arresting period piece would be remiss without the costume, and The Favourite is bursting at the seams with intricately tailored garments and frocks. The men prance around in wigs of powder white and brown complete with applied moles, mirroring the elaborate set design with their own facetiousness and making way for the ladies fitted in the real showstoppers. For the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), the ever-brilliant Sandy Powell presents us with the visual dichotomy of a woman struggling with power in a time when it is near impossible to gain, and we are as likely to see Weisz strutting about in tricorn and trousers as we are to see a bustle and frills. Costume, in fact, becomes a symbol of confinement and repression for the queer or powerful woman, with shot after shot of the leading characters being buckled into or ripped out of their garments.
The Favourite becomes as a play akin to the Shakespearian, complete with visible acts, plots, and betrayal, all encapsulated in its regimented royal setting, blurring the lines between the tragic and the comic. Its brilliantly anachronistic dance sequence in particular highlights the absurdity of other period film, showing Lanthimos’ ability to have us resonate with the hilarious and the heart-breaking simultaneously. The early 18th century setting becomes a feast for the eyes and ears, the frivolity of bourgeois duck racing derbies and orange pelting feeding our enjoyment as well as exposing the barely concealed desperation of its central women, in a fashion that reminds one of the violently sumptuous setting of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.
Yet, while it is a wickedly fun slap of a film, it is the small snippets of deep hurt and aching infatuation that refuse to disappear from the mind, long after the credits have rolled. The hilarity before it disarms us in these moments, with something as simple as the rubbing of a pained leg, turned into an act of potent and lingering emotional gravitas.