Wednesday, December 5, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: The Favourite

I've never professed to be a fan of Yorgos Lanthimos, the director behind such acclaimed films as "The Lobster" and "Dogtooth". Though I've always admired singular auteurist style, I tend to be slightly put off by the mean streak that runs through his work. But with his latest effort "The Favourite" I am now a new member of his fan club. This period drama set during the reign of Queen Anne is a vulgar delight that kept me thoroughly entertained.

"The Favourite" takes place in 18th century Britain, where Queen Anne sits on the throne. Despite dwindling resources, Britain is at war with France. Seeking counsel over the imposition of increased land taxes, her subjects jockey to exert their influence over the vulnerable, ailing queen. Her closest confidant is Sarah Churchill, who actively works as her adviser and secret lover. The arrival of a Sarah's cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), however, threatens Sarah's status as Anne's right-hand woman. A former member of the aristocracy who has fallen on hard times, Abigail is a wily operator determined to regain her place among the elite. Before long, Sarah and Abigail are engaged in a rivalry, as both will stop at nothing to be their queen's favourite.

Fueled by lust, jealousy and betrayal, "The Favourite" sees Yorgos Lanthimos reimagining the costume drama as a way to express a sordid view of high society. While the ornate backdrops and elegant attire - sure to be spotlighted among the Oscar nominees for Best Production Design and Best Costume Design - reflect the commonly held belief of a more dignified and sophisticated era, Lanthimos' interpretation is one of both moral and physical decay (with the projectile vomit and festering wounds to match). The film may be set within the posh confines of the British royal court, but Lanthimos applies many of the peculiarities of Greek Weird Wave to thrilling effect.

At the center of the debauchery is Olivia Colman, who gives a bravura performance as the sickly Queen Anne. The character's limping gait and impetuous personality is positively grotesque, but behind Colman's searching eyes lie a vulnerability and insecurity that is undeniably relatable. A Best Actress nomination is certainly on the cards for her, as she emerges as the MVP of an outstanding cast.

Indeed, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone should also find themselves in the Best Supporting Actress conversation as Colman's competing ladies-in-waiting. Weisz is particulary memorable, as her silky voice is the perfect fit for the loquacious and confident Sarah Churchill. Meanwhile Nicholas Hoult is the film's most pleasant surprise, turning in a deliciously Machiavellian performance as cocksure Parliamentarian Robert Harley.

All four actors are given a prime showcase for their talents, thanks to Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara's screenplay, which is rich, cheekily funny and unpredictable in equal measure. There's a touch of modern irreverence to the nearly Shakespearean dialogue that captivates the viewer and will likely impress voters for Best Original Screenplay. Indeed, Lanthimos manages to pull the costume drama out of the stuffy doldrums, creating a truly invigorating cinematic experience. He would therefore be a deserving Best Director nominee for this visionary work of art. "The Favourite" may initially appear to be your usual Anglophilic period drama. But as you look closer through Robbie Ryan's (a surefire Best Cinematography contender) fishbowl lenses and obtuse angles it becomes obvious that this is one of the most innovative and masterful films in this year's Best Picture race.

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