The Favourite is quickly becoming an awards favourite itself – I expect success for it at the Golden Globes this weekend and, especially, at the BAFTA nominations next week.
The undoubted star turn comes from Olivia Colman, who is now heir to Dame Judi Dench in her unstinting excellence (Dench also burst into the movies after a long TV and stage career with her performance of a monarch, Queen Victoria, in Mrs Brown). She delivers a mesmeric, volatile, delicious, appealing yet monstrous performance as a monarch we rarely see, even in our period-drama obsessed film industry.
She plays Queen Anne, in about 1710, afflicted with ailments and grief, very much pressured at court by her close friendship with Lady Marlborough, played with cold-eyed ambition by Rachel Weisz. Their relationship, however, comes under threat from an even shrewder newcomer, an aristocrat fallen quite literally on hard times, Abigail, played by Emma Stone – with an admirable British accent – who begins to work her way up from the scullery to the Queen’s chamber.
A battle ensues for Anne’s affections – who will be her favourite? A portrait of scheming, vindictive, battling, proud femininity emerges, one that is also painfully aware of its financial impotence yet gleeful of its ability to outwit the powdered periwigged males.
“We’ll make a killer of you yet,” observes Rachel Weisz as Emma Stone shoots her first pheasant out of the sky and Abigail’s bloodlust for power has just been awakened.
This is directed with a woozy, comically distant panache by Greek film maker Yorgos Lanthimos who brings a refreshingly punk style to it all, aided by the brilliant costumes from Sandy Powell that recall a New Romantic pop video, a smidgen (indeed, a skyline pigeon) of Elton John and a bit of Blackadder.
While the men of politics – played by Mark Gatiss and Nicholas Hoult among others – cavort and preen, the real power struggle is one of emotional resonance between the women, who are all superb.
But it’s Olivia Colman who is unforgettable, sniping and snarling, yelping and groaning, hiding a deep-seated pain that plays across her wonderfully expressive and open face, all at the same time.
It’s a racy film, daring and provocative, often really funny but always dangerous and prickly. I think there’s also a message hiding in the duck races and honking aristocratic excesses, in the frills and furbelows – that’s Hatfield House taking a starring role, too – that for all the period trappings, certain aspects of British life haven’t altered all that much in 300 years.