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The Favourite: Yorgos Lanthimos subverts with punk period drama destined for awards glory
December 20, 2018
The brilliant buzz of The Favourite has been building for so long, it seems the film should have been and gone from big screens already. Critical praise following previews at film festivals, press screenings and US release inundated the internet, raising the expectations to stratospheric fever pitch for those who have still to see it. The Favourite will finally be released in UK cinemas on 1st January and throughout Europe next year. With predicted public love set to bud the film into hot bookie favourite for board sweeper at next year’s Academy Awards, but is The Favourite really all it’s mooted? Too often is the case where faux word of mouth is generated to boost early box office bookings, only for films to be massively underwhelming on arrival.
From a distance, director Yorgos Lanthimos’ aptly titled follow up to his polarising The Killing of a Sacred Deer, doesn’t seem the type to permeate the mass market. It’s a slyly subversive, bleak looking period piece cut from a similar seeming cloth to deep, indie prestige features frequently seen in smaller screens of big chain multiplexes, like; Lady Macbeth, My Cousin Rachel, The Little Stranger or Peterloo. Dependable but low profiting pictures that have a target audience but fail to reach beyond it. So why will The Favourite fair so much better? For a start: following its limited US release (in New York and Los Angeles) on 23rd November, the Fox Searchlight distributed feature has “the best theatre average in almost two years”. Also, it’s a masterpiece.
While retaining some of the traits of the aforementioned Brit flicks, Lanthimos’ latest is laced with the callous, biting tongue of Blackadder, bleak, beautiful and evocative cinematography by Robbie Ryan, recalling John Alcott (particularly his composition/ pallet for Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon), majestic performances from nation favourites Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz, alongside the equally brilliant Emma Stone (with convincing Brit accent), and a rib cracking, gut rupturing, hilarious trailer, demonstrating the sharp, sardonic comedy that courses constantly throughout, like black blood beating from a broken poet’s heart, submerging Lanthimos’ latest by the bucket load.
This not only echoes the corporate-cultural fascia of our inane/urbane times, but suggests that beneath it all is still a slight scintilla of light. The Favourite’s 1708, England set story unfurls while the country is at war with France, but centres around penurious twenty-something Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), who arrives at the palace of an abject Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) to deliver a letter to her cousin Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz): chief advisor to HRH. While there, Abigail professes her need for employment and is given a position as one of the Queen’s help. After establishing herself as a reputable servant, Abigail attempts to manipulate both Anne and co-workers in attempt to slide up the regal ladder, double-crossing her cousin in the process and making enemies throughout the palace.
This fascinating character study recalls the scheming lust triangle of Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons, with the kind of close, clashing conflicts of Milos Foreman’s Amadeus, showing love and hate to be similar emotions, utilised as tools, that turn into each other too easily. Other components merge to make The Favourite black magical. Incredible acting talent and characters combine to cut across the screen like knife sliced ice. Deeply deplorable (in a great way) dialogue stems from the pens of screenwriters Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis who provide comedy that cuts so deep, you barely recover from one belly laugh before another erupts. Every line is honed and mined with acerbic irony and actions seeded with absurdist wit.
Ulterior motives, cutting swipes and character play are related like poetry, but what isn’t spoke is also important. Subtle suggestions and subplots align via devious bit players (including a brilliant Nicholas Hoult) who dot/colour the backdrop with depth and context. Details linking the ongoing war to land tax dispute grounds flowery profanities and protagonists’ play chemistry with pragmatism and purpose. If mishandled, these could have been detrimental to the drive but are applied to enrich the world in which the characters operate.
With striking visuals and a wicked tongue, The Favourite is a wry farce that does more than go for the funny bone, but replaces it with a landmine in the guise of a custard pie. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a poisoned quill, dipped in LSD then jimmied in the eye. With airs and graces, Lanthimos’ latest flips the bird to Merchant Ivory, ransacks Downton Abbey like Richard Curtis on crack then invites the Bronte sisters to Fight Club and letting them beat it up. With Jane Austin in a headlock, it tears down dated toffee nosed subgenre associations by way of sly subversion and a cutting punk MO, delivered with genius panache to make it resound as a masterpiece in its chosen field, with box office pull and the audacity to blossom into a timeless work of art.
The Favourite is released on the 1st January 2019.
Words by Daniel Goodwin @privateutopias.
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