Review: The Favourite (2019)

It’s a costume drama but not as we know it in Yorgos Lanthimos’ surreal story of royalty, sex and power.

Already amassing quite the following after The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, director Yorgos Lanthimos is not the first person you’d expect to try his hand at costume drama. However, for any fans of the director’s previous work, you already know that Downton Abbey this ain’t. Recalling the modern twinge of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette but with a dinner table full of surrealism on top, The Favourite is not a film suited to all tastes.

Sharply written with profane screams and lesbian sex scenes, this film tells the story of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), whose frail condition is growing at a time when Britain is at war with France. However, the physical battlefield is very much a side-issue to the psychological war going on in the halls of the palace, as Anne’s advisor and secretive lover Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) finds herself coming to fight over the affections of Anne, when her young fallen from social grace cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives seeking employment. A timely tale of gender politics and a pitch black dissection of the destructive nature of pursuing power and the obsessive and sexual make-up of the human psyche, this is surrealist period drama with some provocative layers.

While there are the odd lines of comedy and some clearly audacious piss takes of the genre, the promotion of this awards tipped artistic drama as a dark comedy was not really on point, as I didn’t find it constantly funny so much as massively intriguing. Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s dark script slices the flesh with its ferocity and revels in its divisiveness (expect walk outs), as the themes and artistry take pride of place over the historical accuracy and document (though, to be fair, the broad overview is correct).

The Favourite looks fantastic, with its lens eye shots and curved frames, giving the intimate nature of the story a much needed visual accompaniment. Speaking of visuals, the film deserves every one of its set, costume and make-up plaudits, as the art department’s work here is quite exquisite, as are moments of the odd score, which overall does often jar and (like some of the other aesthetics) does sometimes feel almost to be mocking itself, with its repetition, prolonged nature and occasionally ill-fitting placement, which leaves you questioning how serious certain things are meant to be, in spite of the aforementioned consistently grave tone.

All the same, while it is a film that I can’t say I adored, I highly admired it, especially in the ideas it discussed so uniquely through the medium of film, not sure whether I’d watch it again, as I had had quite enough come the kaleidoscopic closing shot but that being said The Favourite was incredibly memorable and a film you can rigorously discuss and remember. And it is made all the more so by great performances from the cast (which includes The Thick of It’s James Smith, The League of Gentleman’s Mark Gatiss and Mad Max Fury Road’s Nicholas Hoult) but it is the leading trio that obviously take over (so to speak).

Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz are outstanding, as this jealous, manipulative and power hungry triangle of point scoring and sex allows each actress to shine at different moments. Colman is surely on her way to Oscar glory as the ill monarch who still holds all the cards in spite of her near child-like temperament. Stone perfectly encapsulates what it is to lose power and how devastating (and sometimes futile) it can be to re-acquire it, while Weisz is at turns wicked, intelligent and probably the most confident character in the entire movie.

The Favourite is very much a biting, impressive, divisive and angry piece of art, which is provocatively performed and made to win the hearts of as many as it will shake.

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