Freitag, 25. Januar 2019

The Favourite

Part period drama, part court intrigue, part soap opera, part The Death of Louis XIV, part lesbian sex comedy, and wholly its own wicked, strange beast, The Favourite marks another significant, and highly entertaining, turn in the career of maverick Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. Not only is his third English-language feature, following The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), his first foray into historical cinema; it's the first time since his debut, 2001's My Best Friend, that he has directed a script that is not his own.

It proves to be a smooth transition: Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara's screenplay, based on a draft Davis wrote all the way back in 1998, fits Lanthimos like a glove, its playfully anachronistic tone and language a worthy substitute for the deliberate and evocative awkwardness of The Lobster and Sacred Deer – while his idiosyncratic staging provides the perfect frame for the unfolding madness.

Set in the early 1700s at the court of Queen Anne of Great Britain (Olivia Colman), The Favourite is a refreshingly contemporary take on a venerable, often stuffy genre. (Take note, Mary Queen of Scots.) Through a creative reading of the historical record – and plenty of f-bombs and sexual references – Lanthimos, Davis, and McNamara remake Anne's short, war-torn reign into an engrossing tale of hapless men and conniving women, as the ailing and eccentric Queen's policy-making is increasingly dependent on the influence of her two rivalling confidantes – well-connected Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and ambitious upstart Abigail Hill (Emma Stone).

As one would expect from such a production, The Favourite is a visual feast, full of lavish costumes and beautifully intricate set decoration. But it's the cinematography that is the real star in that regard: Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who specialises in the dreary working-class surroundings of Ken Loach and Andrea Arnold films (Fish Tank, I, Daniel Blake, American Honey), brilliantly undercut the sumptuous décor with muted colours, space-stretching wide-angle shots reminiscent of Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975), and, most notably, the highly effective use of fisheye lenses – inspired by early modern convex portraiture – which bend the edges of some shots and serve as a striking visual cue that things are rotten in the state of Britain.

Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz, left) is the favourite confidante of ailing Queen Anne (Olivia Colman).
© 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Narratively, The Favourite eschews conventional genre trappings as well, as the political infighting that threatens to sink Anne's war efforts in France is played almost entirely for pitch-black political comedy. It turns out that a wide array of creative insults ("You smell like a 96-year-old French whore's vajuju") and colourful supporting characters – especially Nicholas Hoult's outlandishly bewigg'd Earl of Oxford – makes for a surprisingly engaging exploration of British party politics in an era that predates the United Kingdom's current parliamentary tradition.

Meanwhile, Sarah and Abigail's feverish game of seductive one-upwomanship at the feet of a decadent – and deeply depressed – Queen elegantly balances tender romance, mischievous eroticism, and unbridled cruelty. Picture Carol, All About Eve, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? all rolled into one. Then dress up everyone involved in impractical Restoration outfits.

Sarah's privileged position is threatened, however, by the arrival of Abigail Hill (Emma Stone).
© 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film
Although the excessive two-hour runtime ultimately keeps it from unequivocal greatness, it's the three leading women's physical, abrasive, and emotionally rich performances that keep the film within touching distance of it throughout. Olivia Colman's Anne in particular is a masterstroke: recalling – and arguably even improving upon – Nigel Hawthorne in The Madness of King George (1994), Colman lets her audience see and relish the absurd comedy of her character's erratic state of mind – and, frankly, of the monarchy itself – but there is never any doubt that beneath all the pomp and circumstance, Anne is suffering physical and psychological agony. A lesser actor might have delivered a brilliant comedic turn but in doing so cheapened the tragedy, or they might have played up the drama and landed back in stuffy-period-piece territory. But Colman is in full control here, turning in a hilarious, heartbreaking performance for the ages.

In that, she mirrors the film as a whole, which seems pieced together from fundamentally contradictory genres and modes, but which Lanthimos, in concert with Davis, McNamara, Ryan, Colman, Stone, and Weisz, manages to mould into something that is not only utterly engrossing but also fiercely original.

★★★★

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