Yorgos Lanthimos brings a sense of Blackadder to the big screen in sumptuous art house comedy The Favourite (2019)
Move over Bess (and, I suspect, pre-emptive apologies to Margot Robbie) there’s a new award-baiting Queen on the block: oft-overlooked 18th Century sovereign Queen Anne.
England, 1708. A frail Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) occupies the throne, disinterested in matters of state and instead consumed by her various ailments and an ongoing quest for distraction and entertainment. The job of ruling she leaves to her close friend, confidante lady-in-waiting Sarah Churchill, Duchess Of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). When Sarah’s impoverished cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) arrives at the palace looking for work, it sets in motion a ribald and ruthless power struggle as the two vie for the Queen’s favour and affections.
A bawdy, powerhouse period piece, “The Favourite” is Lanthimos’ most accessible work by far, a saucy, savage mash-up of “Blackadder”-esque machinations and archly on-point social commentary and luxuriously indulgent production values. Caustic and utterly compelling, the film belongs entirely to its devilishly profane and powerful trio of actresses, who play their own game of thrones as the manoeuvring around the Palace hierarchy turns chess into a blood sport. Coleman, Weisz and Stone each deliver astonishing work and as their characters plan their next moves and countermoves, the three actresses likewise combine to play their own game of one-upmanship, not trying to upstage their co-stars but instead helping the others to even greater heights.
The wonderful camera work and general aesthetic owe a considerable debt to Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” but this is no mere homage or recreation. By turns glorious and grotesque, “The Favourite” retains enough of Lanthimos’ idiosyncratic strangeness and oddity to sate his existing fan base while undoubtedly winning him a whole new army of admirers. It’s a dizzying, dazzling triumph which leaves only one burning question unanswered: how much did Nike pay for the most unexpected and abstract product placement in the history of cinema?