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New Release Review - THE FAVOURITE

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In 18th century England, two cousins compete for the favour of Queen Anne.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Mark Gatiss, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn

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Few European filmmakers have made as triumphant a transition to English language filmmaking as Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos. After establishing himself as the figurehead of the 'Greek Weird Wave' movement with unsettling oddball films like Dogtooth and Alps, Lanthimos arguably found a more fitting home for his distinctive worldview in the Anglo-Saxon world with black as night comedies The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Now, with The Favourite, Lanthimos takes on that most British of genres, the period drama.

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Set in the early 18th century, The Favourite takes place in the English royal court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) as her country becomes increasingly bogged down in a war with France. Like so many royals, Anne is more than a little dotty, spending her days stuffing her face with cake, screaming abuse at servants and falling asleep in meetings with politicians and military leaders. Constantly at Anne's side is the Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who while acting as a friend and confident to Anne, is also engaged in a lesbian affair with the Queen. Sarah is the secret puppetmaster pulling the strings of the monarchy, and subsequently the nation.

Sarah's position becomes compromised upon the arrival of her cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), a former member of the gentry now reduced to the status of a commoner thanks to her father's gambling ways. Employed to perform cleaning duties at the palace, Abigail is taken into the Queen's confidence when she puts together a poultice that soothes the monarch's chronic gout. As Abigail begins to take the place of Sarah in the Queen's affections, war breaks out between the two cousins, who resort to increasingly desperate measures to remove their respective rival from the picture.

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Much of the humour of The Favourite comes from the idea of upper class toffs insulting each other in a very cutting British manner, and it's funny to a point, but it feels like a poor man's version of the caustic wit found in two superior recent period pieces - Whit Stillman's similarly themed Love & Friendship and Terence Davies' Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion. Both those movies had a heart and humanity to go along with their sending up of stiff upper lippery, and both of their filmmakers betrayed an affection for their characters. Ever the misanthrope, Lanthimos displays nothing but contempt for his ensemble, and with not a single character to sympathise with, The Favourite's cynicism eventually becomes gruelling.

What kept The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer constantly amusing in the face of their thematic bleakness was their downright absurdism. Neither of Lanthimos's previous English language films are set in a recognisable world, and the level of absurdism at play allows Lanthimos to indulge in some very black comedy, breaking taboos like the killing of children and animals and somehow playing such scenarios for belly laughs. Remove the rape jokes and the cutting jibes, and The Favourite isn't all that dissimilar to the average British costume drama, and in the final 30 minutes Lanthimos all but extinguishes the humour outright, resulting in a second rate political period drama.

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It's a shame that Lanthimos can't translate his unique vision to this milieu, as his collaborators are all on top form here. Colman, Weisz and Stone are magnetic, making you wish they had dialogue stronger than the constant barrage of tiresome invectives screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara offer them. As you would expect from a historical drama made in the British film industry, the costumes and production design are exquisite, and Robbie Ryan's cinematography recalls Kubrick with its wide angles, tracking shots and candlelit interiors. Watch The Favourite with the sound muted and it will likely resemble a movie of far greater depth than the one Lanthimos has actually fashioned.

It's probably not a coincidence that Lanthimos's weakest movie to date is the first that he's made without the collaboration of his regular co-writer Efthimis Filippou, and the first time he's directed someone else's script. The Favourite certainly isn't a case of Lanthimos becoming a director for hire, but it's lacking his indefinable presence to a noticeable degree.

The Favourite is in UK/ROI cinemas January 1st.


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