Generally speaking the words ‘costume drama’ are ones that will turn me off from seeing a film or TV show long before the opportunity to actually see it arises. With The Favourite however the critical reaction, as well as recommendations from several real people, suggested this was one worth watching, though the inclusion of a trailer for the upcoming Downton Abbey movie before the film began was a bit of a worry.
There was no need to worry though as what director Yorgos Lanthimos, along with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, production designer Fiona Crombie and costume designer Sandy Powell have created is certainly a costume drama, but one about as different from the safe and stuffy Sunday night TV thoughts that phrase brings to mind.
Set in the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), the story alone is fascinating as it explores the political machinations surrounding the Queen, her lady in waiting Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and newcomer to court Abigail Masham (Emma Stone).
This develops over the course of the film into a heated rivalry between the pair to become the titular ‘favourite’ of the Queen and, while it may play fast and loose with actual history (depending on who you believe), it manages to feel very real despite the many ridiculous aspects of life at court.
The world of court is excellently set up from the start as we meet the top politicians of the day racing ducks in the palace while the mere appearance of Tory leader Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) has to be seen to be believed.
After this comedic and somewhat surreal opening anything that happens is believable but it helps to make the more intense and dark aspects all the more impactful, and there are plenty of them.
This slightly twisted view of life at court comes with all the dirt and grime of the era intact and the film doesn’t shy away from showing this as Queen Anne eats until she vomits in an ornate vase (a particularly nice metaphor for the whole thing) or, as in our first meeting with Abigail, we find all about how the mud is likely far more sinister than simple ground and rain water…
Added to this the use of different camera techniques, including fish-eye lenses, and a more naturalistic use of lighting certainly make it all feel more real and as if we are voyeurs into this at once dingy and highly elaborate and ornate world and, at points, we even feel like we are part of the conspiratorial goings on at court.
What really anchors the film though are those three central performances with each of them being brilliant and, even coming from three well-known actors, I soon get lost in each and no longer saw ‘the star’.
As the film goes on each shows different sides leaving the audience constantly guessing where the power in their relationships really lie as each ‘chapter’ of the film subverts expectations of the previous to keep the intrigue alive right to the end.
Around the lead trio circle a group of men, supposedly running the country, who at best seem generally a bit useless in comparison or, in the case of Hoult, like he’s trying to be scheming and dastardly but really doesn’t hold a candle to the leads who, if anything, use the men as pawns in their scheming – a great touch given how women are usually portrayed as the pawns in costume drama.
With a subplot about the war in France that could easily be commenting on modern-day events, it’s easy to see why The Favourite has received not just such favourable reviews but award nominations aplenty, and it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if it remains one of the best new films I see this year as it combines all aspects of the art to create something truly special without being obvious about it.