Principal Cast : Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Mark Gatiss, joe Alwyn, James Smith, Jenny Rainsford.
Synopsis: In early 18th century England, a frail Queen Anne occupies the throne and her close friend, Lady Sarah, governs the country in her stead. When a new servant, Abigail, arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah. But Abigail’s true motives soon become clear, and both Sarah and the interloper find themselves at odds.
It’s rare that a film accomplishes such a feat: all three of The Favourite’s leading ladies were nominated for an Academy Awards; Olivia Colman as Best Actress in a Leading Role, and both Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz for Supporting Actress. It’s fair to suggest that Yorgos Lanthimos’ film is a heady mix of salacious lesbianism and rancorous dialogue, and it is equally fair to suggest that – despite some enormous historical inaccuracy – the film is flat-out fantastic. That comes with a caveat, however, in that Lanthimos’ style will not suit everyone and the vast majority of people watching it will be left scratching their heads in confusion.
It is early in the 19th Century, and Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) reigns over Britain. The country is at war with Spain, and the Queen is beset with physical infirmary (gout) and severe depression. Her confidante, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) the Dutchess of Marlborough, effectively rules the country through having the Queen’s ear – unknown to most, the Queen and the Dutchess are involved in a furtive sexual affair. When new scullery maid arrival Abigail (Emma Stone) suddenly makes her presence in the Queen’s court felt, and curries favour with the monarch, it brings out the worst in the Duchess’ proclivities, and things soon turn remarkably uncivil.
The director of Dogtooth, The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer has helmed his first major mainstream film in The Favourite, a blistering mix of drama, wry comedic performances, sublime dialogue (the screenplay was Oscar nominated) and captivating central performances. The Favourite is a work of hypnotic art, abstract giggles and latent homosexuality. Lesbian themes in period films always feel more salacious than they probably really were, and Lanthimos heightens the candle-lit mood by involving his camera in such a manner as to be both bizarre and a stroke of genius as Colman, Stone and Weisz deliver performances that redefine their careers. The writing on this film is masterful, alternately vulgar and cheap while remaining indefinably upper-crust. Kudos to both Deborah Harris and Tony McNamara for their exemplary work here, in creating three distinct characters of flawed ambition, ragged humanity and destitute soullessness, wrapped in a sheer beauty that is barely captured by this startling film. The film contains profanity and brazen language that is somewhat confronting, so I suggest vetting your audience before sitting down to watch if constant use of the C-word is not quite your cup of tea – oh don’t fret, it’s all tastefully done, in a manner befitting a royal story.
The story, while nowhere near the truth, is blissfully indifferent to the whims of history. Anne, who was legitimately infirm through much of her life, and most likely depressed given she lost seventeen children through her life (the majority of which were likely stillborn or miscarried), so her inherent sadness and lack of mobility makes for a disconcertingly empathetic leading performance. The film uses pet rabbits – 17 of them – to elicit a maternal response to her plight, cast as a lonely, desolate figure in the cavernous halls of her royal residence. Colman imbues Anne with a frail strength, in one moment weeping and nearly incoherent before regaining her faculties and berating those poor souls nearby for merely being there. It’s a captivating role and Colman delivers an equally captivating performance, memorably essaying one of history’s most misunderstood and oft-reviled leaders and giving her back her humanity.
I’ve always been a bit hesitant on Emma Stone, despite solid work in Easy A, her duo of Spider-Man films, as well as La La Land and that silly Crazy Stupid Love, but The Favourite has confirmed for me her ability to really invest as an actress and inhabit a role to the fullest. As Abigail, the social climbing former socialite-turned-maid-turned-social-climber, Stone is wide-eyed enough to give the role a sense of purpose without jettisoning rationality. The role could have become a bit of a cliche, the do-anything-to-get-into-the-good-graces routine having been done to death in other films, but Stone magnifies the fear of loneliness and poor social rank and ratifies her motivation through sheer spunk. Personally, it’s the first time I’ve ever watched the actress in a role and actually found myself watching the performance, rather than the actor.
The third wheel in this triptych of femininity is Rachel Weisz, as the conniving and unscrupulous Sarah Churchill. Weisz steals every scene she’s in as the film’s “villainess”, portraying the Duchess as a wiley and hardass bitch, torn between doing whatever it takes to protect her country and the undeniable affection she has for her Queen, both physical and emotional. Weisz’ performance is instantly hiss-worthy but retains a sense of warmth and forlorn abandonment, as she sees Anne slowly slipping into the warm embrace of the younger Abigail, turning potentially a one-note bad girl into a well rounded and sympathetic character. Together, all three women deliver a cloistered film of festering intimacy matched only by the sidebar interruptions of matters of state, namely Nicholas Hoult’s pontificating politician.
Hoult, as the only real leading man of the film, is excellent in the squirm-inducing role of Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford and eventual Chief Minister of the Tory Party, in a role assumed to be a progenitor of Prime Minister. Hoult is excellent, almost unrecognisable, with the actor assuming the spiffling effeminate nature of aristocratic life with a naturalness and snarling realism. Smaller roles to Mark Gatiss, as the Duchess’ military husband John Churchill, and Joe Alwyn, as an associate of Harley’s, Samuel Marsham, have little real impact on the story but do allow the leading roles to develop through the course of their interactions.
The Favourite isn’t an easy film to get into, leastways if you’re a casual film fan just looking for a quick-and-easy watch. Lanthimos has filmed The Favourite with a particularly unique style, utilising fisheye lenses and Kubrickian-steadycam work (edit: turns out the production never used steadycam, apparently, but rather unique gimbals and rigging to achieve the fluidity of movement captured by the camera), as well as some off-kilter angles and lighting choices, which at first blush threw me off a bit. Eventually, however, the style of the film began to make sense, a kind of subtle insanity to match the state of mind of Anne herself, given the story revolves around her entirely. It’s a film lit in a realistic way, using set-bound candlelight and natural sunlight to give the film a bucolic look in much the same style as Barry Lyndon’s landmark visuals. In fact, I think Lanthimos owes a lot to Kubrick’s estranged vision of the period film, for Barry Lyndon’s aesthetic appears part of the DNA of The Favourite by choice, rather than by accident. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography, as well as three-time Academy Award-winning costume designer Sandy Powell’s astonishing period costume design, are atmospheric and enhance an already bulging movie with glorious visual textures, whilst the incredibly atmospheric soundtrack – consisting mostly of baroque period works by classical composers – is suitably intense for such an inward-focused film. If you go into The Favourite, know that it’s a film made for people who love film, not casual cinemagoers or those seeking slight thrills. It invites discussion even as it (possibly) repulses or revolts, even as it worms its way into your mind.
Arguably one of the strangest films about a British royal figure ever made, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is easily one of the best films of 2018, a year in which unique voices in the medium are in short supply. As a work of art it ticks all the queer and crazy boxes (pun well and truly intended), as a character piece it’s darn near flawless, and as a piece of cinematic literature it’s a film to be poured over and studied with rapture and adoration. Yes, The Favourite is that good. If you can handle it.
© 2019, Rodney Twelftree. All rights reserved.