By Preston Wilder
S&M is known as ‘the English vice’, but it seems the occasional Greek can also partake. 18th-century England is indeed the setting for The Favourite, but the presiding spirit is Athens-born Yorgos Lanthimos whose five films – two in Greek, three in English – since making his name with Dogtooth all deal in the same, very bleak (and sadistic) sense of humour. He got solid laughs out of children dying, at least for those on his messed-up wavelength, in The Killing of a Sacred Deer – and now upends the BBC-drama world of period frocks and witty lines, exposing a world of casual cruelty and one-up(wo)manship. The lavish settings disguise a coterie of ruthless, poisonous characters, who get off on hurting others almost as much as the director does.
“Are you scared?” purrs Lady Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), gripping Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) by the neck and pinning her to the bedstead. Sarah is upset because her role as the Queen’s confidant is increasingly being usurped by a maid, her impoverished cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) – but Sarah is also the Queen’s secret lover, and her physical violence carries a pronounced sexual thrill. The whole film throbs with barely-suppressed kink. (It’s really not the sort of film you’d expect to win 10 Oscar nominations.) There’s much talk – and a brief example – of people being “stripped and whipped”. Abigail’s courtship of the rather gormless Masham includes slapping his face, kneeing him in the balls and wrestling him to the ground. “I have just now decided to marry you, Masham,” she says happily, the formalities completed.
Men in general seem to be having a bad week at the cinema. Nick Fury in Captain Marvel is outraged when an alien probe diagnoses his threat level, as a human male, to be “low to none” – and the men in The Favourite are also emasculated. “Your mascara is running,” Sarah says mockingly to leader of the opposition Harley (Nicholas Hoult), the men’s wigs and extravagant outfits being a frequent source of amusement. That said, the world of politics is inhabited almost entirely by men, lending another little thrill to Anne and Sarah’s power games (at one point, they flirt by pretending to be men): their status as powerful women is almost as shocking – and exciting – as their secret attraction. Femininity is a kind of snare in this movie, hence the (excellent) casting of Stone whose fluttery, wide-eyed softness deceives even the other women.
The exercise of power, whether personal or political, is the point of the drama: Anne is queen, Sarah runs the country (and Anne). All this really happened, by the way – though it’s unclear if Anne’s court also included such diversions as racing ducks and pelting naked people with oranges, and it certainly didn’t include lines like “No pressure”. The deliberate anachronisms in the dialogue are down to writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara – but Lanthimos adds his own alienation effect in the striking use of extreme-wide-angle and fisheye lenses, dwarfing the characters in baroque, funhouse-mirror images. Some will see that as weirdness for its own sake – but the point is to turn the distant past into a kind of science fiction, losing the shackles of historical drama and creating a twisted look to match the women’s twisted emotional lives.
The plot is simple, a courtiers’ tussle for power; what keeps the film going is style, kinky perversity, and a trio of superb lead performances. Colman has the hardest role because Anne is hardest to pin down: insecure, unhappy, gout-ridden, surrounding herself with 17 rabbits – another sexual reminder – to mark the 17 babies she lost or miscarried – but also fun-loving, childlike in embracing her whims, regal in her way, trying to do the best by her subjects. Why don’t we bring in some people from the villages and ask them how they feel? she suggests at one point, her simple good sense cutting through all the periwigged pomp and artifice. (“That is not how matters of state are dealt with,” replies Sarah coldly.) It’s fair to say the audience response to all three heroines changes over the course of the movie, which is surely the mark of a good movie.
The only mixed blessing is Lanthimos, who does so much to make The Favourite sing – yet also lacks something, that sense of mercy which might take the edge off his sadism. The Killing of a Sacred Deer seemed to wallow in nastiness for much of its final act, and The Favourite has a similar problem – even if in this case it’s more of a wallow in stasis and double-exposure shots. The film might’ve ended 15 minutes before it actually does – but then you’d lose that chilling sense of ultimate hopelessness, and the joy this director takes in sticking the knife in. As Sarah says to Abigail, after scaring her half to death by shooting her point-blank with an unloaded pistol: “It is a great jape. Do you agree?”.
DIRECTED BY Yorgos Lanthimos
STARRING Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz
UK/US 2018 119 mins.