Rachel Weisz perched seductively on Olivia Colman’s lap, both dressed in Stuart-era attire. Emma Stone shooting a pigeon, splattering blood over Weisz’s face. Colman, Weisz and Stone taking a mud bath together, making moustaches with the filth they bathe in. All, and more, are exquisitely bizarre scenes that grace us in The Favourite. This Dangerous Liaisons and The Thick of It hybrid focuses on an incompetent and lonely Queen Anne whilst two women, Lady Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham, vie to be her favourite.
Anne (Colman) is ill-suited to the role of sovereign. Her opinion is easily swayed and she seems to have very little interest in ruling at all. Viewers are warned that this portrayal may remind them of their own heads of government. Anne relies on the crafty Lady Sarah (Weisz) to both advise her on matters of the state and keep her bed warm.
But the Queen’s ineptitude and impressionability leaves an exploitable power vacuum. Abigail (Stone) enters as an aristocrat fallen from her high station. Wishing to return to the lifestyle of the court, she must usurp Sarah both from her seat of power and the Queen’s bedchamber.
The ensuing battle between Sarah and Abigail becomes a frenzied game. It’s rarely clear whether this is out of love for Anne or for the power that comes with being her confidant. Amidst the storm of sinister scheming, it is hard to not feel a note of admiration for their creativity and relentlessness. The desperation is palpable when everything is at stake: “Favour is a breeze that shifts direction all the time. Then in an instant you’re back to sleeping with a bunch of scabrous whores.”
Despite a score that features beautiful works of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi, The Favourite is not your grandmother’s style of period piece. As well as the political plays of power, the characters’ foul mouths is something it shares with the Iannucci-verse. There are a number of new and colourful uses for a certain word beginning with c.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos’ use of fisheye lenses soaks in all the opulent details and excessive wealth that adorn the halls of power. And with particular shots we are reminded of the sickness of loneliness that often comes with being the one to hold all the power.
Although The Favourite concerns itself with one queen, the film stars three. Colman, Weisz and Stone are a trinity of dumbfounding performances that outshine the rest. Colman’s royal portrayal is certainly a galaxy apart from the composed Queen Elizabeth II she will play in Netflix’s The Crown. Weisz and Stone’s two-hour tug-of-war is a fitting chapter in their illustrious careers.
The Favourite has all the couture of and bitchiness of The Devil Wears Prada with more laughs and an unforgettable dance scene. Even though the film ultimately loses its powerful momentum in a weak climax (not an uncommon trait of Lanthimos’ films), the first one hundred minutes are more than enough to cement The Favourite as one of the funniest films of the year.