The Favourite

Cast: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Writers: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara


Here in the UK, we love costume dramas. From the sweeping romance of Pride and Prejudice to the majestic grandeur of Lawrence of Arabia to the picturesque elegance of A Room with a View to the refined theatricality of Olivier’s Henry V, historical period dramas have long been a staple of British cinema and television. They remain as popular as ever with such recent hits as Downton Abbey, Peaky Blinders and Poldark finding tremendous success on the small screen. Audiences continue to be drawn in by these films and programmes for the resplendent sets and lavish costumes, the melodramatic stories and illustrious characters, and also for their nostalgic idealisation of the past. I bring this up because Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite breaks just about every convention a costume drama is supposed to follow. The film doesn’t look beautiful or vibrant; it looks murky and ugly. The characters aren’t noble and graceful; they’re nasty and unseemly. And the story definitely isn’t romantic or nostalgic; it’s surreal, tragic and completely contemporary. The Favourite is everything that a costume drama isn’t supposed to be and it is one of the best films of 2018.

The film is set in 18th century England during the reign of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), the last of the Stuarts and one of Britain’s lesser-known monarchs. The country is at war with France but the ruler leading them isn’t the exemplar of strength and wisdom that a queen is supposed to be, she is an overgrown child plagued by gout and depression. As her courtiers exasperatingly compete for her attention, it becomes clear that the only person who has the queen’s ear is her favourite Lady Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Sarah is cunning, ruthless and steadfastly loyal and dedicated to her queen (and lover) to the point that she refuses to indulge her with flattery or delusion. Anne appears in one scene having made herself up for an important meeting and Lady Sarah tells her bluntly and tactlessly that the make up makes her look like a badger. For the most part Queen Anne has no contact with the outside world which means that her decisions, and in turn the fate of the thousands of people under her domain, are determined by whims which depend largely on whoever is allowed to speak to her and who she happens to feel partial towards. As the arbiter of who is and isn’t allowed to speak to the Queen, Lady Sarah is basically the country’s de facto ruler and she uses her influence to ensure that the war against France as led by her husband John Churchill (Mark Gatiss) is allowed to continue.

Following the example set by Nigel Hawthorne in The Madness of King George (who in real life wouldn’t rule for another half century), Colman deliver a tour-de-force performance as an outrageously erratic ruler, playing her as both a subject of hilarious ridicule and heartbreaking pathos. We get the sense that Anne doesn’t have any real understanding of the affairs of the state and tends to be rather petulant when called upon to actually fulfil her duties to the crown: “It’s my state” she declares when Lady Sarah’s attentions are drawn to matters of national concern, “I am the business of state!” She is both the most and the least essential person in her own government; she is completely irrelevant when it comes to understanding and resolving the country’s many problems yet the fates of every man, woman and child who will be affected by these policies are entirely in her hands. It is when she is at her most insecure that she feels compelled to assert her status and this can happen at the most random times, such as in her response to Lady Sarah’s dismissal of her badger-like make up where she orders a passing page to look at her only to hysterically rebuke him for doing so. Yet, for all her power and malice, Anne is ultimately a wretched, pitiable figure; one who is trapped in a role she never chose and is grieving the loss of 17 children.

Yet the film isn’t just interested in exploring the warped emotional psyche of a queen who is apt to eat cake until she vomits, but also in the ways her subjects try to indulge, please and control their ruler. Winning the war against France depends on more than raising taxes, securing resources and planning strategies, it also depends on befriending the 17 rabbits that the Queen keeps as surrogates for her children. This is the political landscape that Abigail (Emma Stone), Lady Sarah’s distant cousin, enters as she stumbles off her carriage and falls face first into the mud. A scullery maid whose own father gambled her away, Abigail seeks out her cousin in search of employment and finds it in the palace kitchens, but what she really wants above all else is to escape her poverty and ascend to the status she has always desired. Thus she sets her sights on the Queen and worms her way into Anne’s confidence (and bed) by offering her comfort and honey where Lady Sarah would only offer harshness and bile. This isn’t to say that Abigail is kind and earnest where Lady Sarah is cruel and unfeeling though, far from it. Abigail soon proves that she has the same knack for deceit, guile and malice as her cousin, but that she can mask it all with the artifice of a pretty face and large, bright, blue eyes.

In a sense The Favourite is less about Queen Anne than it about the competition between Abigail and Lady Sarah to win her affection and their bitter rivalry is as deliciously vicious as anything in All About Eve or Dangerous Liaisons. Much of this is about power and there is a clear difference between what the two women vie for with their ambitions; Lady Sarah has a cause she is trying to serve (or claims to anyway) for the betterment of her Queen, country and people whereas Abigail is looking out only for herself and cares not who she has to destroy to secure her status. Love comes into it as well as one mistress loves her Queen in the way she wants to be loved whilst the other loves her in the way she feels she needs to be loved. In this triumvirate’s love triangle the film presents the Queen with a choice between the comfort and sweetness of flattery and compliance or the surety and authenticity of candour and tough love, neither of which will give her the unconditional, pure, childlike adoration that she has always craved. The film is brutal in its depiction of how lonely these characters all are in their own ways and allows us to appreciate that feeling all the more by filming the scenes through a fish-eye lens, which has the effect of enhancing the inhospitable voids that overwhelm the spaces that these small characters occupy.

The fish-eye lens also has the effect of wildly distorting the shape of the world in bizarre, dream-like ways which is quite fitting for a film as intense and surreal as this. Disproportionately wide views of the rooms and their warped corners don’t just emphasise the vast gulf of space that they contain, the walls look severe and imposing as if they’re confining these characters and threatening to close further and further in until you cannot breathe from the suffocation. The disconnection from the outside world feels all the more clear-cut and there is a definite sense that all of these characters are prisoners of their stations and circumstances and are living a never-ending claustrophobic nightmare. The film feels bizarre and unreal in the way that The Draughtsman’s Contract does and it feels cheekily modern in the way that Love & Friendship does. There is something wonderfully 21st century about the way that the three central women are all pared down, complex and sympathetic figures, even when they’re being funny, while the men who surround them are all flamboyantly decorated caricatures. The brilliance of The Favourite is that it employs its strange and anachronistic tone to better let us appreciate the abject, agonising humanity of its three fascinating and impeccably portrayed leading ladies.

★★★★★

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Youth

Cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

Writer: Paolo Sorrentino


I was first introduced to Paolo Sorrentino when I saw his Oscar winning film The Great Beauty back in 2013, a marvellously contemplative film that was partly about the past as a reflection. By having his main character reflect on a certain memory from his youth, Sorrentino provided an exquisite composition of romanticism, nostalgia, desire and regret. These are themes that are featured prominently in Youth, which is essentially a film about how life is lived. It is about the struggles of aging, the past as a memory, the future as an ideal, and the finality of death. The film reflects on these themes through art, providing a musician and a film director as its two central characters. Both are men who have dedicated their lives to art in their attempts to find meaning in life. In essence Youth is a film about what could’ve been, what might be, and what is.

Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is a retired composer and conductor on holiday in the Swiss Alps. With him is his best friend of many years, the film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) who is currently working on the screenplay of what he believes will be his magnum opus. Together they spend their days talking about the lives they’ve lived and contemplating the lives of those around them. Amongst them are Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) and the actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano). Fred is approached by an emissary for Queen Elizabeth II to conduct his ‘Simple Songs’, his most famous compositions, in a royal performance. Fred refuses without giving a reason why. Over the course of this holiday Fred reflects on his life and all of the joys and sorrows he has known and caused, wondering if there is anything left for him to live on for.

Youth is the kind of film where you’re either going to be completely absorbed or utterly bored. The narrative is not so much driven by story as it is by thoughts. It takes a philosophical approach to its themes with the melancholy musings of its two central characters coupled with an air of surrealism. Just like in The Great Beauty Sorrentino continues to be influenced by Fellini with his dream-like sequences, contemplative tone, and portrayals of beauty. As well as the representation of visual beauty provided by the Miss Universe character, Youth conveys emotional beauty through art. The beauty of music, in Fred’s eyes, is that it is universal; it is something that can be understood by everyone regardless of age, language or culture. There is a particularly moving scene where he sits in a field conducting a herd of cows, basking in the music of the mundane and ordinary. Mick’s art meanwhile is film and here he is struggling with the ending of his screenplay which never seems quite profound enough. What seems to separate these two art forms, in this particular instance at least, is that film requires meaning whereas music is pure in its form. Perhaps that is why Fred seems so unsentimental and withdrawn, because he’s not trying to find any meaning in his life.

The search for meaning is something that occupies the thoughts of every character apart from Fred. Mick’s job is to create meaning through stories and it is his hope that this film will allow him to understand the story of his own life. Lena seeks to understand her father and why it is that he chose to live his life as a musician rather than as a husband or a father. Jimmy meanwhile is wandering about aimlessly through life and is unsure which way he should go. Even as they find the answers that they all seek, they also find that the quest for meaning is a never-ending one. Even Fred is undergoing such a quest, although he doesn’t realise it. Caine provides a nuanced performance as this character as he lives his life of solitude, finding mild amusement in the lives of those around him and occasionally pondering his own life. What he eventually finds is that there is a part of his life that he’s been hiding from which he must finally confront. The scene in which he reveals the real reason for his refusal to perform the concert and makes this realisation is a moving one made all the better by Caine’s astounding performance.

There is a real beauty to Youth in all of its deep contemplation, quiet tragedy and melancholy romance. In their searches for meaning the characters find significance in the everyday and beauty in the unexpected. They discover truths about themselves both joyous and painful. By the end of the film each character’s perception of life has been altered in a fundamental way. The universal search for meaning could be construed as the search for happiness and, while not every character finds it, they all more or less achieve some form of satisfaction (or maybe acceptance would be a better word) for better or for ill. The climax of this film consists of a resoundingly moving scene that drives home the emotional profundity of art. Youth is a thoughtful, poetic and beautiful film that offers a meaningful meditation on life and art.

★★★★★

The Lobster

Cast: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz,  Jessica Barden, Olivia Colman, Ashley Jensen, Ariane Labed, Angeliki Papoulia, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Michael Smiley, Ben Whishaw

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Writers: Efthimis Filippou, Yorgos Lanthimos


Relationships can be weird, harsh and confusing as can be seen in Lanthimos’ surrealist satire. The agonies of being alone, the pressures of finding a perfect partner and the apathies of coupledom are all given a dark and bizarre turn in this absurdist comedy. The Lobster tackles these themes by depicting a dystopian future where the very concept of love and romance is non-existent. Instead the ritual of finding a mate has been desensitised into an unfeeling process of cruel methods and ludicrous regulations as these forlorn souls attempt to find suitable mates who match their singular defining characteristics. The subjects of this film are a stilted, deadpan people who exhibit absolutely no capacity for imagination or passion. It depicts a dark and bleak image of the future where love has become an unfeeling, mechanical process robbed of all feeling and purpose.

David (Colin Farrell), upon being left by his wife, is required by law to stay at a resort so that he might find himself a new partner. The Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman) informs him that he will have 45 days to find a match or else he will be transformed into an animal of his choice. David decides that should he fail then he would like to become a lobster, an animal that lives for over a century, is blue-blooded (like aristocrats) and gets to live in the sea. Amongst his fellow residents are the Limping Man (Ben Whishaw), the Lisping Man (John C. Reilly) and the Biscuit Woman (Ashley Jensen), unhappy daters who have all defined themselves by a single characteristic by which they hope to form a bond with a potential partner. When David proves unsuccessful in his efforts he escapes the resort and falls into the company of the Loners, those who have rejected the custom of enforced coupledom, led by the Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux). It is here that David meets the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) whose defining characteristic is one that he shares.

The first half of this film is superb. The hotel in which the dating convention takes place is hilariously dreary and oppressive in the way it forces its miserable occupants into coupledom. The residents must partake in ridiculous exercises such as going about their daily activities with an arm tied behind their backs as a reminder of how two is always better than one. The candidness of everyone’s speech and the deadpan way in which they compose themselves serves to reinforce the simultaneous absurdity and misery that these characters are forced to undergo and does so to a uniquely droll effect. I was astonished at how oddly funny and unsettlingly cruel this film could be in its portrayal of these contrived romances and the pressures and fears that drive these characters to suffer them. A particular highlight for me was when one character became so desperate for companionship that he continuously forced his own nose to bleed as a way of attracting a woman who was prone to nosebleeds.

The second half of this film, when David escapes into the woods to join the loners, is when the film lost me. I think the problem was that the film tried to take its idea too far and ended up getting lost. What had started off as being strange and baffling (in the best way possible) soon became inane and confusing to me. I understood that the Loners were supposed to serve as a foil to the Hotel with their equally oppressive anti-coupledom laws, but beyond that I just didn’t understand where the film was trying to go or what it wanted me to take away. It didn’t help that the woods and its inhabitants were not nearly as interesting or enjoyable as the wonderfully preposterous hotel. I found the film’s latter half to be little more than consecutive sequences of aimless wandering until it suddenly all comes to an abrupt end. Maybe there is a point to be taken away from all that but in the end my thoughts were left more confused than stimulated.

Through its peculiar and inventive concept The Lobster is able to provide a strange yet reflective commentary on the practices of dating, marriage and relationships, along with the customs and pressures that they carry, that I wish had been more fully realised. The film’s understated direction, odd characters and uncomfortable atmosphere allowed for a fascinating and engrossing film to start with, but as the film’s course strayed more and more my interest waned. I enjoyed the film for its quirkiness and style, but those can only take you so far if the story itself fails to be engaging. When it was all over I found myself at a loss over what the film was trying to say or what it wanted me to take away. While there is much to enjoy in this dark, eccentric comedy, especially in its tremendous first half, I think that overall The Lobster is an example of how tiring that Wes-Anderson-esque quirkiness can get when the film loses track of itself.

★★★