Being wealthy, powerful and having a full staff at your every beck and call guarantees a pretty happy, comfortable existence, right? The answer to that question is a big no if The Favourite is any indication. Director Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest is a highly entertaining, intoxicating and nasty escapade that reveals the miserable emptiness of unearned, false power and love.
The Favourite takes place in the early 18th century when England is at war with France. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is on the throne, but her decisions are heavily influenced by her good friend and right hand of sorts, Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). But then Emma Stone’s Abigail Masham steps into the picture. Abigail secures a job as a servant, cooking, cleaning, and bunking in extremely cramped quarters, but then she catches Queen Anne’s eye, rises in the ranks and winds up threatening Sarah’s security as the Queen’s number one.
There’s much to praise in The Favourite but above all, it’s a prime showcase for three powerhouse performances that deserve all the acclaim likely coming their way this awards season. Stone’s Abigail exhibits perhaps the widest range of the three going from warm caregiver to manipulative social climber, and Stone handles the transition beautifully. Weisz is as sharp as they come as Sarah. She’s a no-nonsense advisor to the Queen and also has a firm and deeply passionate emotional hold over her, and Weisz gets the opportunity to take those qualities in some very curious, unexpected directions.
And then of course we’ve got Colman as Queen Anne, an extremely complex performance filled with deplorable displays of temper and pathetic signifiers that confirm she’s entirely dependent and highly pliable. Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s screenplay earns quite a few laughs at Queen Anne’s expense, but amidst this farce packed with heightened wit, there’s also a dark, grounded dose of reality and in Queen Anne’s case, it makes her story utterly heartbreaking.
Colman, Weisz and Stone deliver big all on their own, but it’s the way they play off one another that sends you on your way with three volatile and destructive journeys to consider. For much of the first half of the movie, this conflict comes to life as a wild, period piece romp with outlandish behavior, spot-on dialogue delivery and comedic timing. The high-energy fight for Queen Anne’s affection is one that tests Sarah’s resilience and Abigail’s ethics in some very amusing ways, but as the narrative progresses, it further recognizes how this intimate battle for power and affection threatens to completely crush all three women while also putting an entire country at risk. On the one hand, it’s mind-boggling and quite frustrating how petty bickering can infect the political system to such an extent, but the sadness of Anne’s story is that it all feels inevitable and unavoidable for her. She’s a weak, ailing Queen. The wolves were bound to descend to push their own agendas, and they do, some with pure love for Anne in their hearts and others with none at all and the movie frequently calls into question, which one is worse?
The costume and production design in The Favouriteare also drop dead gorgeous. As someone with next to no appreciation for high fashion, I was astounded by how mesmerized I became by the costume work which serves as A+ period piece eye candy that also reflects each character’s personality and transformation throughout the movie. And the same is true of the set design here, too. It’s extreme royal lavishness with countless ornate details to explore that also lends itself to imagery that bolsters certain parts of the story. One moment, the Queen’s room can be a source of warmth and hope for someone like Abigail, but it feels more like a prison for Anne. And the same is true of frames that depict Anne in a room full of politicians where you can basically feel their weight baring down on her.
Per usual with Lanthimos’ work, The Favourite has an extremely precise and unique style, pace and tone, and Lanthimos knows exactly how to establish and maintain it, perhaps even better than in his last two entries, The Killing of a Scared Deer and The Lobster. The Favourite is a wicked frolic through a world of high stakes gossip, manipulation and snobbery. What begins as a highly entertaining show of playful, whip-smart comedic writing eventually takes on a sobering quality that ensures a lasting impression.
The Favourite hits theaters on November 23, 2018.