January 9, 2019 § 2 Comments
In Dogtooth and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Yorgos Lanthimos depicted families drastically ruled by patriarchal fathers. The Favourite presents a wholesale reversal, centring on three women each vying for the role of despot. Here, the solemn tone of the two earlier films is replaced by one of dark comedy where the ratio of hilarity to shock is high.
Dogtooth and The Killing were both weird, both located in a vague and uneasy present. The Favourite is perfectly entitled to be even weirder given the horribly outlandish nature of its time and place: 1708 to be specific, and the court of Queen Anne. Duck races merely hint at a universe of strangeness and absurdity in the Royal Palace. Hierarchies are savage. All of which contrives a bracing departure from the politesse of your average costume drama, where the past is air freshened and made familiar. The past is weird.
The Favourite visually conjures Hogarth, but with a touch of Blackadderish silliness in its male characters. No euphemisms, much swearing, an approximate attention to historical accuracy underlying its extravagant refusal of realism. It has a terrific script, full of quick, scabrous wit, and a soundtrack that includes Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Purcell and Elton John.
Anne (Olivia Colman) isn’t really despot material: she’s ageing badly, crippled by gout and other ailments, sad and easily manipulated. But the imperious neediness and capricious tantrums have something of Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen about them. Her occasional spite stops short at ‘Off with their heads’, though as she gapes at the assembled Parliament, not mad but clueless, she might well be asking ‘Who in the world am I?’ She’s anxious, paranoid, unseeing – as tyrants tend to be, particularly when flailing.
The natural despot of the trio is Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), Anne’s intimate companion of the bedchamber and the bed, and the real wielder of royal power. Treating the Queen like an infantile subordinate, she conducts her political schemes with militaristic discipline and ruthlessness, turning herself from general manqué into de facto supreme commander. She it is who sends her husband, the famous Duke, back to war. She it is who sends her cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), to work as a scullery maid and be birched for a minor infringement of royal privacy, before taking her on as instrumental protégé (Sarah’s big mistake).
Clever and not without low tricks of her own for surviving in this eat-or-be-eaten world, Abigail insinuates herself into the Queen’s bed and favour. She stops short at nothing.
Labyrinthine candlelit corridors, Escher-like staircases, overbearing decor are all heightened by cinematography that squeezes and distorts space into claustrophobic proportions. Wide-angle and ultra-wide fisheye lenses shrink grand ceremonial rooms. The Court’s inhabitants are thus visibly trapped inside the hostilities of power and ludicrously remote from the populace they govern. For them there is no world outside.
These perspectives make what is funny even funnier: the physical comedy of the ball where Sarah and her peremptorily chosen partner end up showing off and stopping the show with the kind of moves derived from jive or Strictly; the fight in the forest where Abigail runs rings around her would-be rapist – both delightful set pieces of choreography. Anne craves comfort and affection, Sarah is ravenous for power and Abigail, disdaining politics and the men who practice it, will go to very nasty lengths for the sake of being left in peace to read. In pursuit of their wishes, all three suffer indignities which they manage to shrug off, albeit with some petulance in Anne’s case. Power struggles are a free for all.
Laughing at tyranny is unlikely to oust the tyrant, but it can give us the satisfaction of seeing it for what it is, be it monarchical, presidential or petty. The Favourite is a splendidly subversive farce.