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‘The Favourite’ is a brutal delight

| Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Observer | Claire Kopischke

Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite” features graphic self-harm, animal abuse and enough bodily fluids to make David Cronenberg blush.

It’s also the funniest film of 2018.

The latest tragicomedy from the controversial Greek auteur is one of those “based on a true story” films that seemed to have kept only the names of its subjects and changed everything else, and is all the better for it. Set in 18th century England, “The Favourite” tells the story of the frail Queen Anne, whose servant-turned-lover Sarah Churchill rules the country via her influence on the Queen. When Sarah’s cousin Abigail arrives at the Queen’s court and incites a love triangle between the three women, political obligations and questions of policy are left behind in favor of an endlessly entertaining power struggle. “Sometimes a lady likes to have fun,” Rachel Weisz’s Sarah remarks during the film. The audience is more than lucky to have fun with her.

“The Favourite” is the largest success thus far for Lanthimos, whose previous films were noted more for their arthouse risk-taking than any sort of critical or commercial consensus. Prior to this movie, Lanthimos’ most famous film was 2016’s rom-com deconstruction “The Lobster,” a love-it-or-hate-it proposition — count me in the former camp — that nevertheless earned Lanthimos an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. After 2017’s “The Killing Of A Sacred Deer” was met with a shrug from audiences and critics alike, the provocateur found success by letting somebody else write a script for him. Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s screenplay for “The Favourite” seems to have been written with Lanthimos’ unique sensibilities in mind, with plenty of deadpan asides and insults that cut sharper than any weapon could. Lanthimos has earned a reputation for forcing the star actors he works with out of their comfort zones, and Davis and McNamara’s script does the exact same for the director. The roughshod nihilism that handicapped his previous work is corralled and focused here, resulting in his best movie yet.

That same script also allows for masterful work from the three actors at its center. Lanthimos alum Weisz is scabrous as the uncompromising Sarah, and her exchanges with Nicholas Hoult’s foppish politician are the movie’s most purely comedic scenes. This is Emma Stone’s first movie role after winning an Oscar for “La La Land,” and she turns in an equally assured performance in “The Favourite.” In her hands, Abigail’s ascent from lowly servant to the Queen’s right hand — and bed — comes as a surprise to no one in the audience.

Olivia Colman is the real revelation here, however; with help from Davis and McNamara, Colman’s Queen Anne is one of the greatest comic creations in recent memory. The doddering, dyspeptic ruler calls to mind Tom Hulce’s iconic title performance in “Amadeus,” replete with the same manic energy and absent-mindedness. Where Hulce’s interpretation drew ignorance out of his character’s absurd well of confidence, Colman’s Queen Anne operates on the opposite end of that dichotomy. She is almost crippled with self-doubt, worried more about her court’s opinions of her weight and looks than she is with the war ravaging her country. Any well-intentioned actions she may plan on committing are invariably blocked by Sarah and Abigail, whose emotional manipulation of Anne borders on the sociopathic. The character of the Queen could have been wholly contemptible if left to a lesser actor. As Colman plays her, however, she becomes the sole source of empathy in the film.

Outside of the main triumvirate of stars, Anne’s court as envisioned by Lanthimos and his writers provides a suitably raucous backdrop for the story’s machinations. The script’s inversion of gender roles generates laughs throughout the film, with Sarah and Abigail using their avarice and cunning to control the impotent male politicians fighting for the Queen’s favor. The aforementioned Hoult shows off previously undiscovered comedic chops as the bewigged, preening Harley; his reaction when Weisz tells him his mascara is running is worth the price of admission alone. Lanthimos does a wonderful job of filling in the margins of his story with just-weird-enough touches, be it the slow-motion duck races run by the politicians — the phrase “Fastest duck in the city” is absurd on paper and laugh-out-loud funny in the theater — or the dance competition that splits the difference between the “Step Up” movies and “Dangerous Liaisons.” However, farce isn’t the sole aim of Lanthimos’ narrative choices. The 17 rabbits Anne owns seem like yet another odd embellishment until it is revealed each one represents a child she lost during pregnancy, childbirth or infancy. This dichotomy of comedy belying tragedy is responsible for much of the movie’s narrative thrust in the third act of the film.

Lanthimos’ directorial imprimatur is readily apparent in every frame of “The Favourite,” whether it is his trademark neutral color palette or now-signature fisheye lens compositions. Along with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, Lanthimos shoots the movie with a painterly eye. Ryan’s insistence on only using natural lighting during filming invokes Stanley Kubrick’s similar mandate in “Barry Lyndon” and leads to some particularly striking shots: A sequence wherein Sarah discovers Abigail sleeping in the Queen’s bed, lit only by a single candle, is more reminiscent of Rembrandt’s use of chiaroscuro than it is of any filmic precedent.

“The Favourite” is almost alchemical in its prowess; one gets the impression that if Lanthimos had not procured this exact mix of talent both in front of and behind the camera, the movie could’ve been a total disaster. The lion’s share of the credit, however, has to go to the three women who form the heart of the movie. The interplay between them — simultaneously kinky, hilarious and intimidating — drives the film forward. More than anything, “The Favourite” seems to prove an oft-quoted opinion cited to Oscar Wilde, who probably would’ve been impressed by the film’s rhetorical and comedic achievement: “Everything is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.”

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