I’m currently attending the BFI London Film Festival, so will be popping in with reviews of everything I get the chance to see. My latest reviews include Yorgos Lanthimos’s new Oscar-tipped comedy and the directorial debut of a British comedy stalwart…
Continuing the trend of spiky costume dramas at this year’s LFF, Yorgos Lanthimos‘s askew take on the reign of Queen Anne arrived at the festival as one of the most hotly anticipated tickets in town. The prospect of someone with an oeuvre as unique as the Greek filmmaker behind such recent oddities as The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer taking on the British monarchy was always going to be interesting, particularly as its time on the festival circuit has brought about a fair amount of Oscar buzz, especially for the triumvirate of leading ladies.
Olivia Colman, in a big screen leading role for the first time since Tyrannosaur is Anne, woefully lacking in the tactical nous necessary to deal with the threat of the French and the political slithering of her Parliament. Her right-hand woman is Sarah (Colman’s fellow Lobster alum Rachel Weisz), who offers counsel to the queen while also protecting the interests of herself and her military boss husband (Mark Gatiss). Sarah’s position of cushy authority at court is threatened when Anne takes a fancy to new maid Abigail (Emma Stone) and a power struggle begins.
The plot of The Favourite might sound fairly conventional, but the movie is anything but – as fans of Lanthimos would have expected, and indeed hoped for. It’s his first movie that he has not at least co-written and so his trademark non-sequitur laden deadpan is absent, but the dialogue from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script is very much a good fit for the director and it’s one of the sharpest scripts of the year. It’s two hours of scabrous wit and quite incredible swearing – including your new favourite phrase to describe infatuation – delivered with absolute relish by the three leading ladies.
Colman’s Anne is not a consummate leader, prone to noisy tantrums and rather pathetic outbursts, and this is a role that the actor attacks with brio and commitment. Weisz and Stone are slightly more controlled and unshowy, but every bit as impressive, switching elegantly between sycophantic love for the queen they are each trying to woo – in every sense of that word – and foul-mouthed spite for each other. All are on career-best form, with outsider Stone especially adept at disappearing completely into this world of the British upper class. The movie’s slightly weaker second half suffers from separating this golden trio, rather than trapping them in the claustrophobic environs of the royal court as the first half does.
The court itself is rendered with unorthodox opulence, amplified by Lanthimos’s admirable eye for an oddball shot through a fish-eye lens or an unsettling, out of place whip pan. Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, which has previously played Windsor Castle and Wayne Manor on the big screen, is transformed into a world of cartoonish royal excess, full of duck-racing toffs and strangely patterned walls. It’s notable that every man who appears in the movie is part of this rabble of babbling bourgeoisie, with Nicholas Hoult standing out most obviously as the Machiavellian leader of the opposition Tory Party. This is a film in which women are in charge at every turn and the men are utterly grotesque.
The Favourite is Lanthimos’s most accessible film and also his funniest, with the first hour in particular stuffed with quotable dialogue set pieces – it has to be considered a frontrunner for the Original Screenplay Oscar. However, it suffers slightly from lacking the dark edge that is so significant in his previous films – an edge that is promised throughout by the distinctly Lanthimos tone. Chapter titles littered through the story do nothing other than stifle the momentum and the second half drags slightly in comparison to the lean, punchy opening. With that said, this is a movie that is going to win plenty of new fans for one of cinema’s most compelling directors – and it’s also a rollicking, regal riot.
(Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos, 120 mins, UK Release: January 1, 2019)
Jessica Hynes is one of the most charming and reliable women working in British comedy today, so it seems bizarre to note that The Fight is the first time she has hopped behind the camera to direct a movie, as well as appearing in a rare lead actor role. She plays mother-of-three Tina, who works in a care home and exists on opposite time schedules to night worker husband Mick (Shaun Parkes). The spectre of bullying enters her life from all angles when her terrified father (Christopher Fairbank) comes to stay at the same time as her eldest daughter (Sennia Nanua, who was so great in The Girl With All The Gifts) begins to suffer troubles at school as a result of a girl whose mother is a face from Tina’s past.
As the title suggests, boxing plays a part in the narrative. When Tina realises that her daily mindfulness tapes aren’t helping much, she decides to take up boxing at the gym where she does exercise classes. Strangely, this element of the story is completely sidelined by the film and feels almost as if it’s getting in the way. This is a movie about bullying in all of its forms and that idea alone is strong enough to sustain a feature, without the boxing. Hynes is exactly the right face for the centre of this story, though, as she’s a consistently lovable presence with whom it’s easy to sympathise.
She’s very good at managing the serious and silly elements of the film, carried along by a script that is solid and competent, even if it’s more wryly amusing than it is laugh-out-loud funny. It’s nicely observed and really enjoyable, with one standout sequence seeing Alice Lowe cameo as a happy-clappy home-schooler who defends her lifestyle and a daughter who “can’t count, but she’s really good at jumping”. Sally Phillips, also, is terrific as the kindly music teacher who takes Nanua’s character under her wing.
As much as some of the movie’s elements are a little under-served, The Fight is an enjoyable Brit flick. It’s short on literal punches, but succeeds in delivering metaphorical ones, depicting bullying in all of its shameful forms, as well as the effect that bullying has on the people around it.
(Dir: Jessica Hynes, 91 mins, UK Release: n/a)
Are you excited to see these movies? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section and make sure you keep coming back for the next few weeks for reviews of all of the best movies from the BFI London Film Festival 2018.