The estimable New York Film Festival is many things to many people, but one word I’ve certainly never used to describe it is campy. To my delighted surprise, the NYFF opened this year with a campy BANG! with Yorgos Lanthimos and his way-over-the-top “The Favourite.” It immediately became my favorite film so far this year. Lanthimos has directed a love poem to extravagantly coiffed and exquisitely tailored British lesbians of 18th Century England.
During the War of Spanish Succession, good Queen Anne is bed-ridden with gout, but the firm, sure hands of the darkly delicious Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough(Rachel Weisz) are there to help navigate her listing ship of state through the rocky shoals of court life and international politics. The Duchess is her favorite and turns out to be her (shock!) fervent lover as well as her “Favourite.”
The lesbianism is so out-front it made me gasp with joy, and presumably it was accepted in royal circles (if you had a male husband to hide behind). Weisz and British Indie actress Olivia Colman as Queen Anne are seen in many outrageous Sapphic situations to match their outrageously opulent outfits. They kiss and kiss and then kiss some more. It’s the joy of Queen Anne’s constricted life. And in a career-making performance as the ailing queen, Colman is magnificent and unforgettable as she tour de forces her way to the many, many acting awards that surely await her bravura performance.
By turns pouty, put-upon and powerful, Coleman wriggles her nose and sticks out her prominent upper teeth in perfect semblance to the many dozens of rabbits that surround her in the royal bed-chamber. The adorable bunnies are a parallel replacement for the many, many children she has lost in child birth. And the poor, lonely sovereign has no one to express her thwarted feelings to except the magnificently handsome and domineering Duchess of Marlborough. They go at it hammer and tongs with a sheer, abandoned joy in gay way that I have never seen depicted in a major feature film before. Certainly, not in an Opening Night spectacular at the New York Film Festival.
Their shimmering duet is uninterrupted bliss until, like a dark shadow passing over their moons (and moans), appears a much younger, but very ambitious, comely servant girl. Abigail Hill is played to a fare-thee-well by Academy Award winner Emma Stone, in a role that challenges her like never before, and she, like both her co-stars meets all the challenges director Lanthimos throws at her with a power and charisma that is breath-taking as it is beautiful. A as deposed aristocrat herself, Abigail is constantly looking for a prime opportunity to return the manner and station to which she was formerly accustomed. And thereby hangs the plot, as these three daredevil actresses perform their delicious roles to a hilt. They form an intriguing triangle of love, sex and deceit, resulting in comic mayhem that pushes camp to new extremes and breaks all boundaries of previous depictions of lesbian romance. Bravo and brava to all involved. I never wanted it to end and the perfect period costumes of British designer Sandy Powell, drip with glamour and glistening detail.
Emma Stone at the press conference following the screening: “I never had to wear a corset before!”
Olivia Coleman: “I just got to wear my jammies all the time. It was a treat. I could eat all the sweets I wanted!”
Director Lanthimos makes sure all the romping is stropped to a sharp point. You do end up hating the British aristocracy, which is depicted in wilting detail. They are shown throwing fruit at a naked, fat servant in a gigantic powdered wig for sport. That the servant is laughing hardly makes it any less a display of baroque barbarism.
But as with any indulgence that implicates the viewer in its decadence, it’s a challenge not to laugh along with all the profligate debauchery. The festival audience tittered with delight at Lanthimos’ hilarious, campy spoof of all things British and upper class. What a treat to witness three powerful, magnificent characters so flagrantly depicted by three actresses who are equally regal, human, and humorous. I never wanted this period delight to end.