British period films are often starchy affairs; even the ones rife with sex and violence tend towards staidness. Not so The Favourite. The latest from Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) finds the Greek-born, London-based purveyor of misanthropic moral mayhem on scabrously funny form as he delves into the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) with a cockeyed tale of manipulation, betrayal, petty power-plays, psychological warfare, the odd spot of duck racing, and gout. It’s the last of these that acts as the catalyst for the game of sexual oneupmanship that takes shape around the queen. That game – as stealthily played as a chess match and kinkier than a courtier’s wig – involves her closest confident, adviser and lover, Lady Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who’s bewildered to find herself being edged out of her mistress’s affections by her own cousin, the fallen-on-hard-times Abigail (Emma Stone). The latter’s tougher upbringing has taught her to exploit any situation and turn it to her advantage, a skill that finds its first expression in her determination to attend to the queen’s gout-ridden legs in order to inveigle her way into her chambers and, eventually, her bed. What follows is equal parts tragedy and farce as the doltish, egotistical Anne enjoys playing both women off against each other, little realising that they’re the ones playing her for a fool in ever more sophisticated ways. Weisz and Stone are brilliant here – the former great at playing someone whose iciness and lack of sentimentality belies a depth of feeling for Anne that’s inextricably bound up in her own sense of duty to her country; the latter perfectly embodying the sort of craven power-monger who just wants to be in charge but has no interest in the long-term impact of her own selfish actions. But it’s Colman’s horrifying and heartbreaking performance as Queen Anne that steals the film, anchoring the barbed wit and salacious intrigue with self-lacerating pathos.
Perhaps because Michael Bay’s Transformers movies have so thoroughly lowered the bar for modern blockbuster filmmaking, a prequel that doesn’t simply follow their bloated, misogynistic, war-porn lead is bound to look good by comparison. But Bumblebee (note the absence of any “Transformers” addendum in the title) is surprisingly fun. Backgrounding much of the tortuous mythology that’s accrued around the robots-in-disguise toy line (there’s still a smattering of incomprehensible nonsense about the eternal war between the good Autobots and the villainous Decepticons), the film rewinds to 1987 – the year the toys were introduced – for what amounts to a lonely-teenager-and-her-pet-robot story. Ever likeable Hailee Steinfeld takes the lead as Charlie, a tomboyish teenager with a passion for fixing up old cars, a hobby encouraged by her late father, whose early death she’s still trying to process. Desperate for a car of her own, she salvages a vintage VW Beetle from her local garage’s scrapyard, oblivious to the fact the eponymous Autobot had taken refuge in its chassis while on a mission to... well... that’s not really important. What is important is that when Charlie discovers she’s got a souped-up cross between Herbie and The Terminator, she can to help Bumblebee make contact with his home planet before the US government can get its hands on him. What follows is a sweet, playful slice of 1980s nostalgia as screenwriter Christina Hodson and director Travis Knight (better known for directing the lovely Oscar-nominated animated film Kubo and the Two Strings) use the plot of executive producer Steven Spielberg’s E.T. as a story framework for an affectionate, pop-culture-riffing kids’ film, one replete with well-defined characters, coherently edited action and enough references to The Smiths, Miami Vice and The Breakfast Club to keep parents of a certain age entertained. - Alistair Harkness