The Home Life of Our Own Dear Queen
'It's a thriller.'
In 2006, Lithuania entered the Eurovision Song Contest with a catchy, up-beat, rather tongue-in-cheek number entitled 'We are the Winners of Eurovision' – in the end this proved to be rather optimistic as the song eventually came sixth. So it goes sometimes, but while 'We are the Winners of Eurovision' did not eventually win Eurovision, Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite has managed to become the buzzy film of the moment and, quite possibly, The Favourite for the awards season which is just about getting under way. Considering that most people know Lanthimos from The Lobster, likely only to win an award for 'Weirdest Film to Feature a Crustacean', this is a fairly noteworthy achievement.
The Favourite is not, in fact, a thriller (this was just a cunning ploy I used to get Olinka to come and see it), but is instead… hmmm, well. A very cursory glance at the trailer might lead one to assume this is a grand costume drama in the traditional style – certainly, the setting and characters are the stuff of many a lavish, perhaps slightly staid drama (the film concerns the royal court of England in the early 18th century). However, something much more peculiar is on the cards here.
Ostensibly on the throne is Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), but the monarch is temperamental, self-obsessed, stricken with gout and obsessed with her large collection of rabbits. Much of the de facto power rests with her confidante and the keeper of the Privy Purse, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who is happy to manipulate the queen, supposedly in the national interest.
Into this situation comes the Duchess' cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), a young noblewoman fallen on hard times. The Duchess is not overly moved to help her and Abigail initially finds herself working in the kitchens. However, her knowledge of herbal medicine proves to be her ticket into the queen's good books and she finds herself moving in more elevated circles, eventually winning the approval of Anne herself.
Needless to say the appearance of a rival is met with steely hostility from the Duchess, and a superficially well-mannered but actually deeply brutal struggle for ascendancy soon breaks out. Who will eventually become the queen's favourite? And is the queen herself quite as oblivious to what is going on around her as it appears?
The Favourite is one of those films which has been made from a script which has being kicking around film companies for nearly twenty years, with the early response usually being something along the lines of 'We like it, but…' – the main problem usually having something to do with the fact that all three of the main characters are women, thus making the film difficult to market according to industry logic (Nicholas Hoult appears as the scheming politician Robert Harley and Joe Alwyn as one of his dimmer lieutenants, but these are both relatively minor roles). However, as I suspect we are likely to see across the coming weeks, in the wake of the Unique Moment there are a number of high-quality female-dominated movies jostling for attention, and there are few films more female-dominated than this one.
As I say, it may look like a traditional costume drama, but this is something really much more idiosyncratic – we were treated to some surly chuntering from a prominent right-wing writer in last weekend's Mail on Sunday, grumbling about the film's wild divergence from historical fact and (supposed) obsession with lesbianism, and if you turn up to The Favourite actually expecting to see a conventional film about the court of Queen Anne then I expect you will be sorely disappointed. Certainly it all looks ravishing, with sumptuous costumes and wigs (all the men look like Brian May, the women are generally more restrained), and many scenes shot solely by candle-light. This inevitably puts one in mind of Barry Lyndon, 15-18-foot lamberts and all, and there is a certain resemblance, but only up to a point. I don't do that invidious 'this film is X meets Y' thing, but if I were, then I would say that, feminine dominance notwithstanding, The Favourite is almost like a cross between Barry Lyndon and the League of Gentlemen TV show – indeed, Mark Gatiss appears in a supporting role, and seems to be very much at home.
By this I mean that The Favourite contains a great deal more (mostly implied) sex and (explicit) vomiting than is generally found in a costume drama, and the whole thing has a twisted, blackly comic sensibility. This is probably the source of all the grumbling about the film's supposed departures from strict historicity – it is apparently 'considered unlikely' that Queen Anne was actually a lesbian, and in any case I doubt that casual conversation around the court was quite as profanity-laden as it is depicted here – but Lanthimos makes it fairly clear from very early on that the cabinet of grotesqueries he has assembled is not intended to be taken at face value. The film keeps wandering off and focusing on oddities – the Prime Minister is obsessed with his prize-winning pet duck, a formal court dance quickly develops into something that looks more like break-dancing, and so on. The choice to use distorting lenses in the camera to give a warped, fish-eye view of events at court at certain points is also something of a giveaway.
So if The Favourite isn't actually about the rivalries at the court of Queen Anne, what is it about? Well, I suppose on one level it's a character piece, especially with regard to Emma Stone's character: the story of how a (relatively) innocent young woman learns to survive in the snake-pit of court politics, eventually becoming just as ruthless and deceitful as everyone around her. Stone is very good and manages to hold her own against Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz, who are both operating on full power throughout – Colman gives the bigger performance, of course, but Weisz has the least obvious character arc and perhaps gets the most nuances to play with.
Beyond issues of gender and sex and history, though, the film is basically about power: what it means to have it, what it means to use it, what people will sacrifice for it, and the other effects it has on them. If the film ultimately has a particular message to impart, it is not immediately clear: it has an oblique, slightly cryptic ending (Olinka thought it was 'very sad') – it may be about the isolating effects of power and its tendency to kill anything resembling a genuine relationship.
In the end, though, The Favourite does a very good job of not resembling a particularly serious film, and it really does function as a quirky black comedy-drama powered along by some fine performances. It's certainly a striking film, but I suspect it may be just a little too off-the-wall to become more than a critical darling. Fun and thought-provoking, though.