The Favourite

THE FAVOURITE,  UK, 2018. Starring Olivia Coleman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Mark Gatiss, Joe Alwyn. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. 119 minutes. Rated MA (Strong Coarse Language).

How often have we been invited, cinematically, into the Court of Queen Anne? Into the court of the last of the Stuarts who had ruled over England and Scotland for a century, a turbulent century, especially with the execution of Charles I, the rule of Oliver Cromwell, the Restoration with Charles II, the battles in Ireland with James II, William and Mary – and Then Anne. Anne lived through 17 pregnancies but lost all her children, the end of the Stuarts, the beginning of the rulers from Hanover who became the Winsors.

If one likes costume dramas, then there is a great deal to delight the eye as we enter the palace and its sumptuous elegance – although, we might remember, that not all that far away across the Channel, everything was far more elegant, far more sumptuous in Versailles (but the English would not have been so interested at the time because they were embroiled in war with France under the Duke of Marlborough.) So, lots of lavish costumes, excessive facial make-up for men and women, large wigs galore and cinema memories of the tableau and lighting for Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.

But, The Favourite has been described as a comedy. It is worth an exploration of the many comments on the IMDb to find that it does not fit the bill for so many correspondents and their idea of comedy. It looks as though they want ha-ha, ha-ha all the time. While there are some of these moments, this is a different kind of comedy. Sardonic is a word that immediately comes to mind. Here are comic situations which have the intrinsic capacity to be tragic. Here is very bad behaviour, even from the Queen herself (particularly so), as well as courtiers who want control and power, as well as of crafty politicians in favour of war, in favour of suing for peace with France, in favour of their own hold on power. One might note that it would be funnier if it was not so potentially disastrous!

Many who did not like the film have commented on the soundtrack, quite an extraordinary mixture of musical styles, from 18th century classic to 21st-century atmospheric, sometimes just alternating beats, subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, commenting on the behaviour and action.

So, here we are at the beginning of the 18th century, the end of the Stuart era, international warfare, fops in wigs indulging in geese racing (surely one of the slowest of sports!) or wrangling in parliament. Queen Anne is eccentric, an inheritor of the divine right of kings and sometimes exercising this on whim, exhausted by the death of her children, seeking and finding solace in women courtiers, petty, tormented by gout, not the idea of a monarch. And she is played with incisive skill by Olivia Coleman.

At the title? The first favourite is Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (with her husband played by Mark Gatiss). She is tough minded, a lady Machiavelli, who continually tells the Queen how to act while allegedly deferring to her. She is also a sexual companion. Rachel Weisz is particularly strong – even maintaining some poise when she is poisoned and dragged miles behind a horse.

But, she hadn’t counted on the charm and wiles of her cousin, Abigail Hill, abused and impoverished, coming to court for a job – and a masterclass in ingratiating herself with the Queen, subtly ousting Sarah Churchill, self-satisfied with her position and power, but, ultimately, over-estimating herself. As an English lady, Emma Stone is excellent.

And a word for one of the male cast, Nicholas Hoult as Mr Harley, leader of the opposition, intriguing and an intriguer.

From the screenplay written by British Deborah Davis and worked on by Australian writer-director Tony McNamara, the film is full of wit (and some unexpected blunt language) but directed in continually unexpected ways by the Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos who has spent a decade becoming more significant internationally with Dogtooth, The Lobster, Killing of a Sacred Deer. They say that this is his most accessible film and praised and award-nominated, but, it seems, not so accessible to audience who want even more accessible comedies at the multiplex.

Fox.                         Released December 26th.

Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.