Rather like last year’s surprise best picture nominee Phantom Thread, The Favourite presents us with familiar prestige, an ornate, Oscar-friendly chocolate box, with fillings one might think easy to predict. On the surface, it’s a tale of corseted conflict with a high-wattage cast, including previous Oscar winners Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, yet, as with Paul Thomas Anderson’s deceptively devilish Daniel Day-Lewis drama, it boasts an unlikely puppet master.
In his third English-language feature, Greek film-maker Yorgos Lanthimos has seamlessly transported his pitch-black wit back to early 18th-century England to tell a story about a monarch that plays out with more similarities to Peter Greenaway than Merchant Ivory. There’s enough pettiness, cruelty, bawdiness and perversity to turn it into whatever the opposite of Academy catnip is, making its 10 nominations seem like a win already. The all-white cast and period setting might not present it as a particularly radical choice, but it remains an undeniably rebellious provocation and its inclusion during awards season has been a refreshing middle finger directed towards some of its stuffier competition.
As someone who has endured far more than his fair share of Oscar bait, films created almost solely with awards in mind, it’s a rare treat to see a contender as gloriously uncensored and unbridled as The Favourite: not only in its vicious vulgarity, but also in its brutal honesty about relationships. As in Lanthimos’s dystopian dating satire The Lobster and in the aforementioned Phantom Thread, there’s an unusual willingness to smash open preconceived notions of what love means, focusing instead on the grisly truth. Olivia Colman’s tragicomic, rabbit-loving, incompetent Queen Anne is torn between two schemers and, more specifically, between the love that she wants and the love that she needs; a clear-eyed distinction not many of us can always make. She’s plagued by tragedy, the effect of which is a crumbling psyche, and her desperate vulnerability requires constant coddling. But, simultaneously, it also requires a canny conduit in court.
Her longtime friend and sometime lover Sarah, played with flawless precision by Weisz, doesn’t always modulate the rough with the smooth effectively, erring toward the former a tad too often. Sarah’s newly arrived cousin-turned-servant Abigail, played with flawless English accent by Emma Stone, offsets this by assuming a much-craved delicacy, slithering her way into the queen’s affections by offering a nurturing alternative. The two fight for control and their deliciously nasty game is, at first, hysterical entertainment before mutating into something more quietly devastating.
While The Favourite has been rightly lauded for its uproarious comedy (it’s easily Lanthimos’s funniest film to date), there’s been less attention paid to this shattering poignancy. The script, by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, is dressed up with endlessly quotable barbs (if it doesn’t win best original screenplay, I’ll start kicking and I will not stop), but also a carefully layered sadness, haunting the tapestried background before seeping into centre stage with the film’s crushing final scene. There’s a humanity that was sorely missing from Lanthimos’s last, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, an effectively nasty but ultimately empty exercise in shock, and while many have mislabelled him as a misanthrope, his work here provides further proof that he’s far from it.
So many directors who have excelled in another language have stumbled or softened in English, from Oliver Hirschbiegel to Walter Salles to Wong Kar-wai, but Lanthimos’s voice remains undiluted. Together with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, whose work on the deeply underrated American Honey deserved far more glory, he gives The Favourite a unique aesthetic; despite the familiarity of the setting, it is shot entirely in natural light, evoking a time and a place and even a smell that’s too often glossed over in more prettified costume dramas. The talky script, so reliant on a specific form of line delivery, is matched with three exquisite, gutsy performances from Colman, Weisz and Stone – all also nominated yet all, sadly, unlikely to win.
Because when it comes to its Oscar chances, The Favourite is anything but, despite co-leading the pack with Roma, both snagging 10 nominations each. It’s just too crude and strange to impress a large enough portion of voters; yet for a film this deliriously defiant, it’s of arguably little relevance. When asked by the Guardian if she worried that the film’s considerable profanity might ruin its Oscar chances, Colman replied: “Who gives a fuck?” Well, quite.