I wasn’t sure what to expect with Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite”. I suspected that it was going to be visually very impressive and that the production crew would have spared no expense to recreate the lavish surroundings of Queen Anne. I knew that it had been nominated for Best Musical or Comedy at this year’s Golden Globes, but I’ve always been a little bit skeptical of period pieces that strive for laughs. I’m an easy laugh in movies, and if The Favourite had gone down the line of stringent historical accuracy with the occasional wry or witty 18th century turn of phrase I probably would have chuckled. What I didn’t expect was to be properly smiling and properly laughing for scene upon scene. Rather than portray the characters with stringent accuracy regarding humour, temperament and language in keeping with the time; screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony Macnamara have taken the key defining themes of Queen Anne and her counterparts and given them more contemporary dialogue which is genuinely hilarious. I’m fairly certain Queen Anne would never have said “I like her, I like the way her tongue feels when it’s inside me”, but the haughtiness and the famous petulance of the historical figure exudes throughout. There are many moments like this throughout the film, where the audience and I in the cinema were taken by surprise by corseted and royal women who say “cunt” and “fuck” and members of parliament throwing food scraps at a naked man while still donning their white powdered wigs.
The three central female figures of the film are incredible throughout, but none more so than Olivia Colman. I’ve enjoyed Colman in her roles within such comedic shows as Peep Show and especially so in her more serious turn in Broadchurch, and I’m genuinely excited that she’s starting to appear in Hollywood films. Queen Anne in this film could easily have become a caricature and painfully one noted. In the hands of a lesser actress she would have been shrill, demanding and petulant but without the depth and genuine empathy that Colman has brought to the role. There is a great scene in the film, purely consisting of Queen Anne wandering throughout her palace, bored and sulking, eventually gorging herself on food and vomiting into a silver basin that her servant holds for her because she has nothing else to fill her time. Despite the gross and ridiculous wealth surrounding the woman, you can’t help but feel sorry for her. Seventeen rabbits sit in gilded cages to represent each of the seventeen pregnancies she’s lost and Colman’s incredibly expressive face as she watches Lady Sarah dance while her gout ridden legs keep her bed and wheelchair-ridden exudes her loneliness and jealousy without a single word. As talented a comedic actress as Colman is, her capacity to inject humanity and tragedy into a character that could have been extremely isolating for audiences to identify with is more than enough to warrant her recent Lead Actress nomination.
As for Weiz and Stone, they embody their characters well. Weiz is austere and commanding while Stone’s wide eyed innocence makes her the perfect canvas for the seemingly naive but calculating Abigail. The film resists the temptation to give one of the women a moral edge over the other; each is despicable and ruthless in their own way but are nonetheless relatable in their pursuit of Anne’s favour in a time where empathy was understandably superseded by the need to endure. Nicholas Hoult holds himself well as the arrogant and pompous leader of the Whigs party, and the other supporting characters do just fine but the focus remains throughout on the three impressive female leads. My English teacher often quoted Mark Twain “Comedy is tragedy plus timing”, and The Favourite has managed to dive in and out of the two with style and ease. It has managed to do the tricky thing; portray individuals in a time completely alien to our own and allowed its audience to, if not identify, at least feel as if they were watching actual people, warts and all, and not simple impressions. Which I suppose is the entire purpose of film in the first place.
By Jock Lehman