Warning: This review discusses the ending.
The case for The Favourite is that it’s a punk album played with galoubets. The prestige crowd are well catered for with heritage locations, regal finery and the requisite pompousness, but here’s the usual Merchant-Ivory stuff with a libertine edge and sense of mischief. The All About Eve plot is delicious but so too is the aesthetic and debauched tone – palatial rooms shot with fish eye lenses – a God’s eye roll if you will (and even if you won’t), Kubrickian distance coupled with lonely intimacy and mercenary calculation. It’s as sad and funny as a gout-ridden leg wrapped in beef.
Jonathan Swift is namechecked and why not – this imagining of Queen Anne’s court has a satirical feel. Perhaps the monarch, addled with illness, took carnal comfort from an obliging and manipulative Sarah Churchill – ancestor of Winston, maybe she didn’t. But the conceit allows for the period’s complicated relationship between Court and Parliament to be distilled down to good old fashioned base principles – whomever manipulates the right genitals controls the agenda. This is not a film John Bercow will watch with indifference.
Much will be made of Olivia Coleman’s performance as the lonely and confused Anne, which fun though it is, doesn’t constitute a stretch for an actress who embodies melancholy and vulnerability the way Vincent Price did malevolence, but the real star of the show is Yorgos Lanthimos’s camera and dry sensibility. Sure, it’s an appropriation of the aforementioned master, and doesn’t leave much room for genuine feeling, but here, as in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the mordant characterisation and precision staging make for an unsettling and unkind spectacle.
The Favourite, for all its sadistic humour and grubby sex, is ultimately a tragedy. Lanthimos, conscious that all the characters are doomed in their way, ends with a little coup de theatre, an arty and ambiguous final scene, that hints at a moment of realisation for the Queen who’s been had, whichever way, and Emma Stone’s Abigail – the social climber whose card has been marked. Neither, you feel, dare articulate the moment (so do not) but both are finished. It’s the most moral moment in a film that delights in the self-interest and hypocrisy of establishment politics.
Given it signifies the limits of sovereign power, the vulnerability to the old order from cynical, wrecking interlopers, and the self-defeating nature of divide and rule – it’s a pity there’s no contemporary event one could hang the movie on as an allegory for our times. Still, one day.