Producer/director Yorgos Lanthimos’ first shot at a historical epic is a semi-handsome production with iffy facts, coarse comedy, a layer of grime and name stars as characters we grow to somewhat loathe.
Whereas Lanthimos has previously turned out disturbing psychological studies (Dogtooth), painfully emotional dramas (Alps), strange sci-fi outings (The Lobster) and horror-tinged head-scratchers (The Killing Of A Sacred Deer), this is something quite different again.
With humour frequently of a sapphic and scatological nature, this at times feels like some odd synthesis of Merchant Ivory, Peter Greenaway (especially The Draughtsman’s Contract) and a whiff of Monty Python, with satirical points almost drowning in the filth but still there for all to see.
In 1708 Britain is at war with the French and Queen Anne (Olivia Colman from The Lobster) is a cake-scoffing tantrum-thrower with a variety of health problems and little concern for the populace beyond the walls (actually Hatfield House in Hertfordshire and Hampton Court Palace). Her closest confidante, advisor and lover is Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz, also from The Lobster), Duchess of Marlborough, who indulges the monarch, scolds her for eating too many desserts and goes one-on-one with the ambitious Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), a primped and bewigged member of Parliament who would destroy her if he knew the truth.
Plotting from All About Eve kicks in when Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), Sarah’s poverty-stricken cousin, turns up looking for employment and covered in what turns out not to be mud. Playing upon some of Sarah’s family’s shame, Abigail is given a job as a maid, but when she sees the Queen’s gout-ridden agony, she seizes the opportunity to ingratiate herself. A little soothing balm made from forest herbs and she’s appointed a lady-in-waiting.
Abigail and Sarah then clash for the Queen’s affections, and scheming Abigail is willing to go as far as possible to achieve her goals. While these three headlining performances are fine, soon the nastiness takes over and things stop being quite so funny, with Colman’s Anne turning into a tragic figure as her condition worsens and those around her become ruthless, conniving monsters.
More than a little loose with the regal facts, surely, Lanthimos’ film is still strong, sometimes brilliantly funny stuff for the first half, but eventually it turns altogether too grim, and later scenes where the Queen has obviously suffered a stroke (that term isn’t used) are tragic and quite disturbing. And the final minute or so presents a baffling montage that’s obviously trying to say something big – but what, Your Highness?
The Favourite (MA) is in cinemas from December 26