The year is 1708. The Kingdom of England is at war with France, and there couldn’t be more unrest at the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). The conflict is bloody, the opposition in the Parliament is rising against a potential landowner tax to fund the war, and the Queen… does not rule. Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Malborough (Rachel Weisz), is her closest advisor, her lover and her stand-in at court. While Lady Malborough acts as a regent at the English court, Queen Anne escapes her duties as crown, choosing to rise and feed animals: from ducks to rabbits. Seventeen rabbits, to be precise: one for each child she has lost in her life. The landscape starts to change with the irruption of Abigail (Emma Stone) into the scene. Given away by her father during a game of whist, Abigail is a social reject looking to regain dignity and seeking employment at court, asking her cousin Lady Malbourough for help. It is only a matter of time until these three highly idiosyncratic figures collide, setting fireworks alight.
When Yorgos Lanthimos’s new project was announced, heads were turned by the exciting prospect of seeing three gifted actresses guided by one of the most talented and yet unpredictable directors working in the movie business. What could possibly bring Lanthimos, known for his bleak depictions of contemporary life, to a royal costume comedy set at the beginning of the 18th century? The answer is the movie itself. “The Favourite” is the grandest achievement in the Greek director’s relatively young career.
It is a tale of greed and power, of ambition and revenge, of hurt and hurtful people. No one at court is safe from the poisoning of the mind, whether it is the commanding and menacing Lady Sarah to the seemingly innocent Harley, leader of the Opposition, hellbent on stopping Lady Sarah’s plans to set a war tax for the landowners he so proudly represents. Visually, the Royal Palace is an explosion of light and luxury as it is a disturbing dark maze of rooms, corridors and secret passages, places where betrayal and scheming happen at every waking hour. “Power is poisoning”, seems to argue Lanthimos, who seems to have a weird obsession with animals. The entire court looks like a huge zoo, populated by beasts (ducks, rabbits, pigs) and by people acting as or compared to animals (Lady Sarah likens the Queen to a badger after noticing her heavy makeup). Through the fish lens chosen by the brilliant Robbie Ryan, whose cinematography brings us directly into the scene, with all its strange twists and whiplashes, we all become spectators of the human decadence of the court, where the only genuine figure seems to be that of Queen Anne.
Yes, the Queen. Cinema has always loved portraying royals, but rarely has there been a more sympathetic and heartbreaking portrayal as the Queen Anne played by Olivia Colman. Absent-minded to a fault, lost in her deliria and devoured by gout, the Queen almost becomes the epitome of a world in physical and psychological decay. She doesn’t like being a Queen and she doesn’t feel like a Queen. She only likes the attention that her role draws to her, just not out of vanity but out of loneliness and despair. In every closeup of Colman’s face, with her every expression that moves the air around her, you can sense the void in her soul, the guilt burdening her heart. She’s a grown-up girl, with all her tantrums and fits coming from a genuine place of mental disarray rather than from entitlement. She only wants to be sincerely loved as a woman, not revered as a Queen.
In this geometrical look at life in court, special mentions are deserved by the other two women forming the triangle. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are at their creative peaks as the ladies fighting for the role of the Crown’s favourite. Intimidating and unnerving the former, scheming and Machiavellian the latter, they are the winking devils of history, the sorts of éminence grise that rarely get told by history books. There’s barely anything they aren’t ready for in order to climb the social ladder. They are the special targets of Lanthimos’ cynical look, with their scenes at the shooting area (perhaps too obvious an analogy of their enmity) becoming a special treat throughout the movie.
In this showstopper of a movie, everything comes together through the hands of its director: a pitch perfect script that seems to come straight out of a Peter Greenaway film, a cast that never hits a false note, a visual spectacle and musical orgasm. Its dark wit and deliciously misanthropic humor will stun audiences all over the world, delighted and disgusted by the carnival of souls called humanity.
The review was for the Venice Film Festival and translated from its original Italian.