Venice first look: The Favourite courts controversy but cops out

Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone play pointless power games in Yorgos Lanthimos’s baroque and profane regal romp that runs out of steam far too soon.

Giovanni Marchini Camia
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Emma Stone as Abigail in The Favourite

Emma Stone as Abigail in The Favourite

The signature surreality of Yorgos Lanthimos’ four previous features, all co-written with Efthymis Filippou, in large part sprung from the disconnection between their contemporary settings and the actors’ stilted delivery of oddly clinical prose. The Favourite, a period piece written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, also aims to alienate through language, though here the strategy doesn’t extend much further than having the noblemen and women of Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman) court constantly spout profanity, with the c-word holding a place of particular honour.

There is certainly some enjoyment to be had in hearing Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), the preening Speaker of the House of Commons, describing someone as “cuntstruck”, or in not being entirely sure whether it’s her kingdom that the Queen is referring to when she invokes the “love of one’s country”. At length, however, the joke runs dry and suspicion creeps in that the film’s myriad historical inaccuracies – these range from the fanciful costumes to the characters’ screamingly preposterous disregard of social norms – represent less an effort at genre subversion than a necessary cop-out.

Abigail Masham’s (Emma Stone) ascension from literally shit-covered maid to Queen’s favourite isn’t so much Machiavellian as preordained. Since Lanthimos and his scriptwriters sidestep historical fidelity – and human logic – in order to accommodate every one of Abigail’s tactics, regardless how ludicrous, they also deprive her each consecutive success of any gravity. Abigail’s usurping of the current favourite, Rachel Weisz’s equally conniving Lady Sarah Churchill, against a (strictly ornamental) backdrop of political conflict between Whigs and Tories, is as streamlined as Frank Underwood’s trajectory in House of Cards. That it should be loosely based on fact doesn’t make it any more believable.

Olivia Colman as Queen Anne

Olivia Colman as Queen Anne

And although Lanthimos employs fisheye lenses, whip pans, extreme slow motion, creeping dollies, showy dissolves and other such devices with desperate abandon – not to mention a bombastic soundtrack implemented with Greenaway-levels of insistence and production design Visconti might have deemed too baroque – no amount of ostentation proves sufficient to spruce up the insipid narrative, which strains to fulfil its two-hour running time as if it were a requirement of seriousness.

That there is an allegorical intention to the choice of fictionalising this particular chapter of history seems self-evident; what it is meant to illuminate is more equivocal. The film takes place almost entirely in the Queen’s residence, cut off from the rest of the world, and while there are reports of suffering and revolts amongst the population, these never reach the palace. If the point is that the ruling classes, regardless of epoch, pursue power for power’s sake without regard for real-world repercussions, that’s not exactly a groundbreaking proposition.

Of greater appeal is the representation of the central power struggle as a triangle between three women, especially since they are shown to be the ones pulling the strings, manipulating the male politicians as they see fit. Sadly, this doesn’t turn out any more fruitful, as the characters are strictly two-dimensional, their gender mere window-dressing. More than anything, the motivation seems to have been indulging the historical rumour that Queen Anne was a lesbian who had a secret relationship with Lady Sarah. And to explore the manifold witty applications of the word ‘cunt’.

 

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