Thursday 3 January 2019

Battle royale: "The Favourite"

At some point in the years that followed 2009's Dogtooth gaining a surprise Oscar nomination, Yorgos Lanthimos, the creative prime mover behind the so-called Greek Weird Wave, had a brain wave. What if you could export the seed of anarchic mischief from which this movement flowered and transplant it into saleable Western genres? Would it take root there? Would there be a market for it? The experiment began well with 2015's The Lobster, Lanthimos's leftfield date movie, whose willing audience of hipsters had possibly had their experiences of coupling so distorted by successive swipes on Tinder that the idea of singletons morphing into animals was only as surreal as anything else in their lives: they went with it. It was less successful in last year's The Killing of a Sacred Deer, his medical/home invasion thriller, which - despite the participation of star performers - was simply too clinical for anything like fun or enjoyment; its weirdness splatted on the screen as so much mannerism, unrevealing, unrewarding. The Favourite, Lanthimos's unexpected foray into period drama, revisits the past as a place less pristine - and worthy of preservation in our hearts, minds and cinema - than absurd, arbitrary, filthy and cruel. Instead of decorum, we get an All About Eve-style catfight; in place of stiff shirts, split lips. It opens in the UK in the same week local lord of misrule Ben Wheatley did his bit to overturn the post-Downton country house drama (and its notions of British supremacy) with Happy New Year, Colin Burstead. With this notionally prestige project, Lanthimos issues his own statement of irreverent intent: I am here to fuck up your stately homes.

The script, by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, starts from a verifiable historical basis: the reign of Queen Anne (played by Olivia Colman), with the war against France on the far horizon. Yet Lanthimos serves notice of a kind from the title of this story's very first chapter ("This Mud Stinks"), in which it is explained how muck-splattered court newcomer Abigail (Emma Stone) fell from a stagecoach when one of her fellow passengers, a brazen fellow who'd spent the preceding journey fumbling inside his pantaloons, made a last-gasp grab for her arse. Abigail's dishevelled appearance inspires the needy Queen's closest confidante Sarah (Rachel Weisz) to wonder whether this arriviste might be employed as a monster to scare the palace's youngsters; thereafter, the elbow-length satin gloves are well and truly off. Books are yanked from shelves and thrown around the library; a suit of armour is used for target practice. That we're dealing with a director who isn't just here to plump up the throw pillows and flatter the audience is apparent as much from the film's distinctive look. Bug-eyed lenses swivel like 19th century surveillance cameras, spying acts we wouldn't normally be privy to in films of this type, and outlining an environment that appears to have been warped almost beyond recognition by its own, not inconsiderable privilege. The space cinematographer Robbie Ryan creates frees everybody on screen to behave as beastly or as grotesquely as they choose, and gives the effect of a costume drama uncorseted: the image bulges outwards, unconcerned with having to appear conventionally pretty, in ways that can't help but strike the eye as novel indeed.

I came to The Favourite as a Lanthimos sceptic, never quite as enthusiastically on the filmmaker's wavelength as many of my colleagues would seem to be. (More often than not, I emerged from his earlier works with the deathless words of Brass Eye's Ted Maul - "You're just being weird. It's not cool to be weird" - running through my head. It may, of course, be considered cooler to be weird in 2019 than it has been at any other time in the planet's history.) You couldn't say that this director has grown any more relaxed with success. The Favourite is so archly self-conscious it makes Peter Greenaway's no less subversive costume dramas from the 1980s and 90s seem like raucous, knockabout crowdpleasers. Its parping, discordant organ score announces every image as the bedrock of a wacko prestige movie about wacko well-to-do folk; as in Lanthimos's earlier films, these aren't characters we're meant to identify or empathise with, rather funny little creatures, figures of fun to be poked or shot at, toppled over and dragged through the mire. The Favourite summons no blood, no pain, no feeling; for all that mud, it's finally as antiseptic as this director's previous experiments. It does, however, manage some laughs, which is an improvement on the altogether oblique Sacred Deer. (It doubtless helps that somebody else wrote the script, which reduces Lanthimos's signature dead air and makes the punchlines 10% more natural.) Two hours remains a longish sit for a film offering nothing in return but a handful of dry chuckles, but the funny bits are vividly funny: Anne screaming at the string quartet parked outside her window to clear off isn't just a prime comic opportunity for Colman (though it's wicked fun to see this generally recessive actress assert herself), but a dismissal of everything for which this genre once stood.

As for those questions Lanthimos may have asked himself way back when, the answers - as suggested by the primetime TV ads - would appear to be a big yes. A director of uncompromisingly odd films has moved into the multiplex without appearing to have compromised unduly: The Favourite is every bit as enigmatic as was Dogtooth before it, its ending as wildly unfathomable as anything Lanthimos has ever filmed. The films are now just bizarre on a bigger budget, with recognisable faces lending greater heft to their eccentricity. I'd be inclined to cheer this progression were those films still not so standoffish, and were it still not clear what Lanthimos is for exactly. He's undermined the human heart in The Lobster, blown up the American nuclear family in Sacred Deer, and now cocked a snook at the British class system - fine, worthy targets one and all, but where do these controlled explosions get us, and what do they leave us with? I'm still unsure, and I do wonder whether his rise to prominence has less to do with any intrinsically cinematic virtue than the weird moment we're living in: that these movies are no more or less random than anything else these days. That weirdness will be the making or breaking of The Favourite - boosted by the awards buzz, advance bookings have doubtless been healthy, but word-of-mouth is going to be touch-and-go, to say the least - though it wouldn't surprise me if British viewers, in particular, found something resonant in the film's vision of an ageing monarch overseeing a kingdom divided by inept politicos and riven by infighting. Perhaps it needed a European filmmaker to come over here and hold up a mirror, albeit a fairground mirror, to show us what awfully silly sausages our rulers can be - but that would be to take the leap of faith that The Favourite is really about something other than naughty Yorgos being naughty Yorgos, weirdness as standard, weirdness as usual.

The Favourite is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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