THE FAVOURITE (R21)
120 minutes/Opens Feb 14/5 stars
The story: It is the early 18th century and Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is, as usual, crippled by illness and grieving over 17 children, all stillborn, miscarried or dead in infancy. Her lover and advisor is Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), from whom she derives both confidence and advice about Britain's expensive fight with other European nations in the War of the Spanish Succession. Into the household comes Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a woman from a decayed branch of the English aristocracy, who is taken in as a scullery maid. Nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress for Colman and Best Supporting Actress for Stone and Weisz.
The greatest danger this wonderfully arranged and wickedly funny film faced was over-stuffing - period pieces about European royals tend to pack in court intrigue, naval battles, generals and name-dropping.
But the usual pomp and ceremony is absent. Director Yorgos Lanthimos lacks the insecurity that compels him to throw grand halls, costumes and soldiers on the screen. This is a film about two women fighting to manipulate a third for power. That there is a lesbian triangle at its centre is a secondary but important element in the mix.
There is so much texture in every scene that, as in all the best films, one wishes for a rewind button to take it all in more than once. Not least because of the settings. He plants his camera at a distance to capture the power plays in widescreen, so even as viewers see the body language in the game of winning the regent's favour, they can drink in the finery at the edges.
While it has been said several times of different directors before, it is true here - Lanthimos lets the human body tell the story.
From the way Abigail is forced to take freezing baths as part of her induction into the household, to how Sarah exudes a sense of threat with her chest and arms while blasting pheasants with her rifle, to Queen Anne's struggles to get her bulk out of her bed, sobbing because of gout, the film-maker grounds this period story in the here and now, an approach that makes everything immediate, relatable and satisfying.
To keep the foul-tempered queen happy, everyone in her circle wears a false face, a ploy that wreaks havoc with Anne's mental well-being, a fact that Colman conveys with heartbreaking sensitivity.
Greek-born, London-based Lanthimos loves masks. In the psychological horror work The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (2017), a boy who is not quite what he seems inflicts pain on a suburban family who are themselves hiding a secret. In his breakthrough, the surreal, horrific Greek-language Dogtooth (2009), the parents of a cultish family create an alternate reality for their shut-in children.
In tone, The Favourite most resembles his alternate-reality comedy The Lobster (2015), set in a world in which single persons are given a deadline to find a mate, afterwhich they are turned into an animal of their choosing. The desperate unmarried don elaborate false fronts to find a match, and the gaps between what is real and what is theatre gives the director plenty of room for pitch-black comedy.
That embrace of characters horrified, yet pleased, by whom they have become shines through in The Favourite, despite it being the first feature not to have writing input from Lanthimos. The script, from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, earned a well-deserved Best Original Screenplay nod from the Academy for its seamless blend of indelicate, often raunchy, comedy, pathos and melodrama.