The Favourite review – Olivia Colman is priceless in punk Restoration romp

Yorgos Lanthimos brings scabrous energy to this dark comedy of 18th-century court intrigue and Colman excels herself

Just when we thought Olivia Colman couldn’t get any better, she steps up to movie-star lead status with an uproarious performance as Britain’s needy and emotionally wounded Queen Anne in this bizarre black comedy of the 18th-century court, a souped up and sweary quasi-Restoration romp full of intrigue and plotting – with wigs, clavichords and long corridors to storm down. The drama is loosely based on the true story of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, competing with her cousin Abigail, Baroness Masham, for the monarch’s favours, and creating a horribly dysfunctional politico-sexual love triangle with mother issues. The two emotional duelists are played here by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, the latter with a very good Brit accent.

There is a cheerfully obscene original script from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, directed by the Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos, who brings to it the absurdism he’s already known for, along with something even more jagged and uninhibited. In fact, The Favourite may have corrected Lanthimos’s tendency towards arthouse torpor. It is a scabrous and often hilarious film, made loopier by the nightmarish visions and wide-angle distortions contrived by the cinematographer Robbie Ryan.

At first – I admit it – I thought these stylisations were going to be insufferable, and even had the unworthy thought that this script might work quite as well with a trad director, in a trad style. But no. Acclimatisation to the visual and verbal rhetoric doesn’t take long and the point is that Lanthimos’s provocations pump and energise the screenplay, which with a conventional director might have just reverted to simpering bonnets-and-ruffles period drama, for all the raucous language.

Olivia Colman’s queen is a really funny creation – perhaps funnier and more sympathetic than her Queen Elizabeth II is going to be for Netflix, but who knows how she will reinvent that role? Her Anne is like something between the QEI that Quentin Crisp created in Sally Potter’s Orlando and a weird blend of Nursey and QEI in Blackadder. But that doesn’t do justice to the sadness of her Queen Anne: someone who has been infantilised by a lifetime of emotional manipulation. She is transported everywhere by wheelchair or sedan chair but can walk just as well. She sometimes flies into something between an anxiety attack and a rage at music or the spectacle of people enjoying themselves because of a self-hating inability to participate in pleasure. There is a private tragedy in her life which means that her emotional energies have been displaced into her large menagerie of house rabbits and she shows a keen interest in racing ducks and lobsters. Again: in the hands of an actor who wasn’t funny this could have been awful, but Colman sells all of it.

Weisz plays her court favourite and intimate Lady Sarah, who deploys every sly sexual and emotional trick to keep the monarch co-dependent and keen on the raising of taxes for an ongoing French war that will glorify Lady Sarah’s warrior husband Marlborough (Mark Gatiss). This is to the horror of minister, Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult). Then a gentlewoman and cousin of Sarah’s, fallen on hard times, arrives at the court as a servant: this is Abigail (Stone), whose knowledge of medicinal herbs helps the queen’s gout. Her majesty takes a shine to the pretty little thing. So does the predatory nobleman Lord Masham (Joe Alwyn). The contest between Abigail and Sarah is on like the 18th-century equivalent of Donkey Kong.

If there is a flaw in the film, it is probably that Colman will inevitably upstage Stone and Weisz, and put their very important face-off in the shade. That is a minor consideration. The Favourite is full of freaky zingers and deeply strange laugh-lines: I loved the idea of someone sleeping like a “shot badger”. (There’s quite a lot about badgers.) And The Favourite is a reminder that the idea of royalty as polite and picturesquely sentimental is something that came in with Queen Victoria: The Favourite is more punk than that. It’s a rousingly nasty, bleary, hungover punchup.

• The Favourite has premiered at the Venice film festival and is released in the US on 23 November, in Australia on 26 December and in the UK on 1 January 2019


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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