Saturday 29 December 2018

Movie Review: The Favourite (2018)

A British royal drama and comedy, The Favourite delves into a three-way power struggle in the court of Queen Anne.

It's the early 1700s, and Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is in poor health as England is engaged in a war with France. Her confidant and advisor Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) is the real power behind the throne, and takes charge of all important decisions, including issuing instructions to leading politician Sidney Godolphin (James Smith) and opposition leader Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult).

Sarah's cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) secures a job as a kitchen servant at the palace, and soon graduates to Sarah's personal assistant after demonstrating initiative in helping treat the Queen's painful gout. But Abigail has grander ambitions, and once she uncovers exactly how close Sarah is to Anne, she sets out to displace her cousin as the Queen's favourite.

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite is inspired by history, but adds plenty of embellishment. This is a story of ambition and a grab for power and social status, peppered with hefty doses of politics and illicit lust. And it's a narrative dominated by women, here holding the reigns and seeking advancement, the men reduced to navigating around them with varying levels of success.

While the story is original and the invented sexual zip adds shock value to the staid royal surroundings, the film is an in-your-face stylish marvel. Lanthimos uses fisheye lenses set in room corners to achieve voyeuristic perspectives, and often fills the screen with wide spaces but not many people to convey a sense of grand places and the burdens of monarchy. A few women are making all the decisions in this court, and they will discover, in turn, that it is lonely at the top.

Natural, candle and backlighting complete the unique visual aesthetic, while the music score is equally inventive, often irritating, but never subdued. The dialogue is injected with unexpected doses of modern brashness, serving as lighting strikes of humour but also bringing the characters down to earth from their traditional contemptuous royal airs.

The words are brought to life by three actresses in top form. Olivia Colman displays vulnerability as the hobbled Queen barely able to walk, her determination to actually rule functioning only sporadically. Rachel Weisz dominates as Sarah, her performance a study in the single-minded understanding of manipulation. And Emma Stone gets the most complex role, starting out as the wide-eyed mud-covered servant girl and methodically working her way towards the power nexus.

The combination of an unbecoming palace squabble and idiosyncratic presentation results in a weird cinematic experience, oscillating between awkward, bizarre and fascinating. Lanthimos' drive to be different is not always on target, but it is never dull.

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