Movies 18 October 2018 | 13:06

LFF review: ‘The Favourite’ is a wonderfully ugly film

18 October 2018 13:06

When Stanley Kubrick made a film set in the 18th Century, he used special camera lenses to capture the natural flicker of candlelight upon his actors’ faces.

Now that Yorgos Lanthimos has made a film set in the 18th Century, it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that he used special camera lenses to make everything look ugly.

For that was my first – and perhaps also my last – impression on watching The Favourite this morning. This is a film of pervasive ugliness. It uses natural light, as Kubrick did for Barry Lyndon (1975), but it allows it to pour in through large windows and expose every wrinkle on set. The camera is held low and pointed up characters’ nostrils. There are plenty of baggy eyes and double chins.

None of this is intended as a criticism – quite the opposite. Lanthimos is doing something very intentional here; reminiscent of early Punch cartoons or Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’. The ugly look corresponds to an ugly world, where men tug on their – erm – appendages in carriages, and where puking seems to be one of the most popular pastimes.

But, unlike ‘Gin Lane’, The Favourite isn’t set in the London mud. All that tugging and all that puking is happening in the court of Queen Anne, as played by Olivia Colman, who, at first, seems to have escaped from a series of Blackadder. She limps down corridors and orders servants to look at her, look at her, before admonishing them – how dare you look at me!

This cheap satire soon gives way to some luxurious character work, as two of Anne’s confidants – the newcomer Abigail (Emma Stone) and her trusted Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) – vie to be her favourite. And if that means massaging the Queen’s fragile ego and her gouty legs, then so be it.

In this way, The Favourite follows a similar narrative arc to All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950). It’s the seemingly more innocent Abigail who is revealed to be nastier and more devious in the end. But if she emerges triumphant, what has she really won? And what, we’re pressed to ask, has she lost?

Besides, that would put Weisz in the Bette Davis role – which is how it should be. This is her best performance in a career full of wonderful performances. The Duchess of Marlborough is as unforgiving as a block of granite, yet it’s always clear that some of her edges are softer than others.

But let’s not dwell on All About Eve for too long. The Favourite also feels as though it has come straight from the weird mind of Yorgos Lanthimos, without any stops or detours along the way. One particularly brilliant scene has Abigail flirting – or should that be fighting? – with her lover in the forest. Every time they seem to be on the verge of kissing, she ends up kneeing him between his legs, or pushing him to the ground.

It’s strange, funny, sexy, grubby, and a whole host of other adjectives that could also be applied to The Favourite in general. Just take your pick, depending on how you feel – but don’t forget to include ‘ugly’.