Yorgos Lanthimos’ seventh film, and his third in the English language, is proving to possibly be his most critically successful endeavour yet. Set in the early 18th century and focusing on the reign of Queen Anne, you might be forgiven for assuming that this is just another stuffy period drama that you might end up watching on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Anne (Olivia Colman) shows almost no interest in ruling. While the country is at war with France she spends her time playing with rabbits and designing a spectacular house for her loyal friend, confidante and politically commanding powerhouse Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). When Sarah’s out-of-luck cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives, hungry to regain her rightful place in society the power struggle between the trio begins.
Lanthimos plays with our expectations of the period drama from the outset of the film. The costumes as lavish as you’d expect but the striking black and white that all three main characters wear contrast with the rich gold and browns of the interiors, an indication that this is not a film about setting but a film about the people. Gone are any of the uptight deference to the royals of the past with biting dialogue that feels more like The Thick of It than Jane Austen – written to perfection by Deborah Davis ad Tony McNamara. Characters snipe at each other with forceful barbs that are barely disguised by the superficial politeness of upper-class society as they trick and scheme to achieve their aims.
The cinematography itself plays with the exceptions of a period drama starring prominent British actors, as Lanthimos and his cinematographer Robbie Ryan employ a fish-eye lens throughout, distorting the image on screen just out of the realms of normal vision to reinforce the oddness of the film. At times it almost feels like a fly on the wall documentary, as carriages rush past the static cameras in the bushes, or characters enter a dimly lit room shot as if through a CCTV camera. This plays on the monotony of life – even in the corridors of power people wander around aimlessly, searching for something to do.
Colman shines as Anne, a sick and lonely woman surrounded by tragedy and sycophants who seems wholly unsuited to the role of Queen, but still understands her sense of duty as monarch. The camera lingers often on her face, and one shot that lasts almost a minute during the party scene displays her ferocious talent. With no dialogue we watch as the sadness washes over her, her lips quiver slightly at the edges and her eyes shine in the flickering candle light, losing the composure that she delicately hangs on to at all times. She radiates both vulnerability and ridiculousness, but is never punished for either of those. Rachel Weisz as Sarah is also brilliant – steadfast and opinionated, occasionally cruel, but always loyal and wise to those in the court that would take advantage of her friend.
Emma Stone too, in arguably the best role of her career, manages to blend self-serving ambition with a superficial kindness that wins over a Queen who simply wants people to love her. All three performances feed off the other and it’s a joy to watch three incredible actresses give their all in a role that is far from your usual Oscar bait fare.
As in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos’ use of quick bursts of sinister and unfriendly strings, creep into the aesthetic of the film creating a world that is not quite like our own, but one we could easily slip into without notice. A world where political intrigue, love, lust and desire all merge into one, where the ridiculousness of 18th century fashion – a special mention has to go to Nicholas Hoult as Harley and his incredibly range of beauty spots – only serves to parallel the futility of political leadership.
While the country protests the war, the rich race ducks, trade barbs and fight for their own gain, which all sounds depressingly familiar for our current times.
If you have a few quid spare, take yourself to see The Favourite. With funding from Film Four, the film arm of Channel 4, it’s great to see strikingly different and unique films getting the recognition and acclaim that they deserve as well as paving the ways for British film to be hopefully more adventurous over the next few years.