The Favourite review: Isabella Sainty on how Yorgos Lanthimos made her chortle and sigh
I have low-brow taste. I love James Blunt (not only for his brutal tweets) and I think black coffee is too bitter and grown up. My point is that most ‘arty’ cinema is lost on me, unless, and this is the big but, it is so good that it runs off the screen, changing the way I laugh or slapping me around the face. In this case, The Favourite gave me a chortle. My chortles were thanks to the raunchy and unpredictable script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. Filled with quippy lines, abrasive swearing and the kind of dirty smirks that an untrained puppy makes once he has decorated your cream carpet brown. With regards to the ‘slap,’ boy does Yorgos Lanthimos have one hell of a swing. It is a visual assault, in the best way possible.
Probably the only time an Art History degree will come in handy is for the ‘smug sigh.’
(A smug sigh: somewhere between an exhale and chuckle, is the knowing response to a poncey art reference.) Where ‘smug sighs’ are concerned, The Favourite offers a feast of opportunities. The use of a fish-eye lens inspired by Dutch 15th-Century concave mirrors - sigh! A monochromatic colour palette reminiscent of Vermeer - sigh! Lanthimos and Fiona Crombie (the Production Designer) cook up some pretentious little puddings for a gallery curator to gobble up, yet for the wise masses who opted out of an Art History BA, it is still delicious! Lanthimos takes a morsel of 18th Century British history (Queen Anne appointing a scullery maid to be Keeper of the Privy Purse, usurping Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough) and turns it into an absurd galloping romp.
The plot is a human chess game, but no character sticks to their designated box of black or white flagstones. Emma Stone’s character, Abigail the scullery maid, and Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), both dig their heels in and stab their elbows out, as they try to knock each other off the board in the race to seduce and control the Queen. It is a lascivious power struggle made all the more enjoyable by the peripheral men, Nicholas Hoult and Joe Alwyn, being the only characters tarted up in makeup, dainty heels and towering wigs. All of Sandy Powell’s costumes are magnificent and historically incongruous, made from denim scraps, laser-cut leather and African prints, whilst maintaining the Queen Anne silhouette. This contrast serves to shape the entire film: a period piece that deviates into the wild and unconventional. Look at the score if you don’t believe me: Bach to Elton John. Lanthimos creates a world where ducks and lobsters are raced, rotten fruit is thrown at a naked bewigged man, and court dancing incorporates Madonna-style voguing.
Each of the unexpected twists and turns is orchestrated by jaw-dropping performances. Stone’s Oscar for La La Land was premature, like giving Usain Bolt a gold medal before he ran the 100m sprint. However, in The Favourite, she shines with an accent that would fool our current Queen and facial expressions that are built for courtly sabotage. In short, Stone is a sensation. Unlike Stone's flapping brilliance, Rachel Weisz gives a shrewd and chilling performance with equal panache. When she re-enters court with the retort ‘I have been to hell’, you believe her. That’s surely where her character has a second home? Somewhere warmer during the chilly months. However, just as you think you are witnessing the wrath of Satan, Weisz reduces you to tears with her sincere love for the Queen. Weisz and Stone’s praises deserve to be sung, but for Olivia Colman trumpets should sound. The crown well and truly belongs to every hysterical scream and whimper that she brought to playing the petulant Queen.
These women are a triptych (smug sigh), a masterpiece of complicated characters, and confirm what we have known all along; that a female-heavy cast can reap heavy rewards. If I was nit-picking, the final scene is disappointing. The dissolving frames look like a glitchy Powerpoint transition from the noughties. I wanted a bang, maybe literally more sex. Having said that, it has its fair share. In typical fashion, Laminthos explores the rumoured sexual relationship between Queen Anne and Sarah and gives us heaps of shagging like rabbits (a warren of rabbits even features, as a tribute to the Queen’s deceased children and failed births.)
Want a dusty museum piece? Look elsewhere. This is a film for a maximalist, who comes to the cinema for a frolicking distraction. Please enjoy irresponsibly.
- Isabella Sainty