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The Favourite earns its Oscar buzz as a royally good time in very bad company

The Favourite earns its Oscar buzz as a royally good time in very bad company
Entertainment
Early 18th century. England is at war with the French. Nevertheless, duck racing and pineapple eating are thriving. A frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) governs the country in her stead while tending to Anne’s ill health and mercurial temper. When a new servant Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah. Sarah takes Abigail under her wing and Abigail sees a chance at a return to her aristocratic roots. As the politics of war become quite time consuming for Sarah, Abigail steps into the breach to fill in as the Queen’s companion. Their burgeoning friendship gives her a chance to fulfil her ambitions and she will not let woman, man, politics or rabbit stand in her way.

Starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult and Joe Alwyn. Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Now playing at the Varsity. 119 minutes. 14A

The Favourite is the most normal film Yorgos Lanthimos has yet made — if “normal” can be stretched to define this tale of an upchucking and libidinous queen, indoor duck and rabbit chases and a dodgeball variant involving naked men and fruit.

The film has all these things and so much more. Keen scholars of the Lanthimos oeuvre will connect the ducks and rabbits here with the Greek auteur’s previous animal obsessions in Dogtooth, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

People have been less of an attraction for him, it must be said, with most of his characters being the kind you’d go out of your way to avoid at a party, or maybe seek a restraining order against.

But we’re in exceedingly good human company in The Favourite, if by “good company” we mean folks who would sooner shoot you than break bread with you. They’re extremely witty about being catty, you see, which explains why the film has just been nominated in the Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy category of the Golden Globes, awards bestowed by people with a true appreciation of the absurd.

Also GG-nommed, rightfully so, are the main vixens of this period farce, set in the English court of the early 18th century: Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, a morose monarch who is by turns bulimic, tragic and randy; her scheming assistant/lover Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), whose most telling quote is “Let’s shoot something!”; and Sarah’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a social climber currently at the bottom of the ladder who will soon turn a twosome into a threesome and make All About Eve look like amateur hour.

Men are not a huge preoccupation in this femme-dominated royal dominion. Most of the serious ones, Lady Sarah’s husband among them, have been dispatched to the front lines of a war with France that Lanthimos and his screenwriters, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, hardly trouble themselves with and care not a whit about accurately representing. (History students: Do not quote The Favourite in your learned essays, even if there really was a war with France, a Queen Anne, a Lady Sarah and an Abigail. But if you must, don’t forget the ducks and rabbits.)

Remaining possessors of XY chromosomes within Anne’s immediate vomiting space include the lackeys who hold open doors for her or who proffer elegant containers for her to barf into; a lovestruck fool (Joe Alwyn); and a politician named Godolphin (James Smith) who cares most about whether his beloved duck Horatio will win the next race.

There is one male who is almost the equal of The Favourite’s Unholy Trinity for scandalous self-interest: parliamentary Opposition leader Lord Harley (Nicholas Hoult), a bewigged and rouge-spattered dandy who is as quick to suss weakness and seize advantage as he is to hurl an orange at a naked man.

Splendid performances by all, but the grandest shout-out must be for Colman, whose Queen Anne is simultaneously worthy of scorn and pity while also possessing a certain measure of cunning. That’s a lot of personality to contain in one character, but Colman manages it marvellously. Try not to tear up when you find out why Anne keeps 17 pet rabbits, not a one of them named Bugs, Peter or Roger.

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone in Yorgos Lanthimos film The Favourite.  (Yorgos Lanthimos via epk.tv)

Lanthimos has also outdone himself with the look of his picture, thanks to sterling work by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, production designer Fiona Crombie and costume designer Sandy Powell, who will all soon be hearing Oscar’s bugle call.

The picture looks almost too good for black comedy, as in a magnificent scene where all the Queen’s lackeys are sent off to find a missing person.

With lanterns ablaze, they plunge into an evening lit by an indigo sky, in a moment that seems like an outtake from A Man for All Seasons. Perhaps that’s why Ryan employs a fish-eye lens on occasion: he’s reminding us that we’re witnessing grotesque behaviour in gorgeous surroundings, albeit royally amusing grotesque behaviour.

Did I mention that The Favourite is one of the year’s best films? I command you to see it. I cannot be held responsible for the actions of my ducks, rabbits and fruit-tossers if you don’t.
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