Put your money on Olivia Colman for an Oscar nomination right now. She’s amazing as a bed-ridden, gout-riddled, wheelchair-whirling Queen Anne in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, which puts a decadent, mordant new spin on the frilly British period pic.
I’m not sure of the true history, but this version – Royal Blue is the Warmest Colour? – focuses on Anne’s close friendship with Sarah Churchill, Lady Marlborough, played with crisp, nerveless ambition by Rachel Weisz. Their relationship – Sarah practically runs the country for Anne – comes under strain when Anne takes a shine to a new servant girl, her new favourite, Abigail Hill, played by Emma Stone.
Initially, Stone looks like odd casting but her quick-eyed, sharp-witted modernity (and decent English accent) do make her stand out as she works her way up out of the mud of poverty to secure her own future.
But it’s Colman who dominates, with her irascibility and wounded pride, her deep sadness and occasional girlish delight. “Oh it is fun to be Queen sometimes,” she squeals, in perhaps a nod to Miranda Richardson’s Elizabeth in Black Adder. Remember, Helen Mirren won at Venice for The Queen and kept marching all the way to the Oscar. Colman can take that big step too – even if her hobbled character would find all the red carpets too hard going.
This is very much a feminist take on politics and survival, and it retains all the arch humour and hard stares of Lanthimos’s previous films such as The Lobster and The Killing of A Sacred Deer – this is by far his most accessible and enjoyable work, though, British history through the eyes of a Greek director who now lives in Brexiting London.
Set almost entirely at court – with occasional visits to the scullery and the whorehouse – the film bursts with eccentricities and excesses, with xenophobic jibes against the French and absurd, dangerous in-fighting. It is funny, yet also cold-hearted, hard to love.
The spectacle is helped by wonderful costumes from Sandy Powell (more Oscar noms ahoy), a zingy script (from Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis – both new to me), music by Purcell and Handel, lavish tapestries and palaces (Hampton Court and Hatfield House take a bow) and fruity, Restoration-style support work from bewigged politicians and Dukes played by actors including Nicholas Hoult, Mark Gatiss and James Smith.
The Favourite is really something to behold, and Robbie Ryan’s bold cinematography uses fish-eye angles and long tracks emphasising the corridors and loneliness, isolation and indolence. But the power play between the three women is what carries it along, each one of them battling for their own heart, living on wit and wiles amid the traps of politics and social standing. Love is the least of their concerns, even if it may be their utmost desire.