Seventeen rabbits in cages. An oversized palace that feels like a fishbowl. Silly folk dancing reminiscent of a “Soul Train” line. If this is the only way Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos can make an easy-to-digest film for mainstream audiences, then we are treated like royalty with “The Favourite.”
It’s the early 1700s and England is at war with France (honestly, it seems like France is cinema’s favorite foe for the English). Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is on the throne, and she is in quite a pickle. With gout devouring her body and politicians nibbling away at her power, Anne doesn’t know what to do. It’s also possible that her madness and ignorance are getting the best of her.
That’s where her confidante and political adviser Sarah (Rachel Weisz) steps in. Sarah, a married dutchess, whispers political moves into Anne’s ear and seduces the queen while her husband is away at war. Literally dropping into this crazy arrangement is Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah’s down-and-out cousin who lost everything when her father sold her to in a card game.
Determined to become a lady she was previously destined to be, Abigail finds ways to undermine Anne and Sarah’s relationship and win the queen’s favor.
Manipulation is a trademark of Lanthimos’ films, from the controlling parents in the twisted Oscar-nominated “Dogtooth” to the boy seeking vengeance against his father’s doctor in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” And while Lanthimos usually takes the most extreme route for how his puppetmasters pull the strings, “The Favourite” is his most accessible film to date. He goes with an pre-existing world with Queen Anne’s reign and presents the struggle between love and power through established personalities. The audience doesn’t have to get over Lantimos’ leanings toward the absurd because they are drawn into the costume drama and 18th-century England. He takes the familiar and warps it.
That could also describe Sarah’s and Abigail’s approach to be in Anne’s good graces. Sarah works in insults and tough love while Abigail prefers to pepper the queen with a soft touch and compliments. This unexpected love triangle takes female friendship and power struggle to different levels. Where many costume dramas focus on how a queen’s handmaidens or ladies in waiting are simply ornaments, “The Favourite” shows that Sarah and Abigail want more than just to curtsy all the time.
It’s also easy to control Anne as she often behaves like a child — lavishing those she loves with presents, throwing tantrums, and making animals her playthings. But Anne also feels everything, from admiration to bouts of grief to sugar cravings. Anne is powerful and powerless, having the presence the crown gives her but also getting the hatred the men in the palace have for her being a woman in charge. Harley (Nicholas Hoult), a Tory and Sarah’s political opposite, recruits Abigail as a spy to push his agenda into the queen’s favor.
“The Favourite” is downright biting thanks to its screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. The situations and exchanges between Sarah and Abigail are destructive but entertaining. While Aaron Sorkin is known for cutthroat dialogue and impassioned monologues in his screenplays, the lines here are dangers to the heart. They shine most as Sarah and Abigail’s connection transforms over the course of their bird shooting sessions. Sandy Powell, who has previously outfitted several cinematic members of royalty in “Shakespeare in Love” and “The Young Victoria,” strikes gold again with her costume designs.
Lanthimos favorites Colman and Weisz, who both appeared in “The Lobster,” really shine in their delicious roles. There have been times when I’ve wondered if Weisz ever got tired of playing period parts, but she always adding more to the role. Here, she is so stern and charming and is clearly having a great time. Stone continues to prove to be an actress up for a challenge in the very physical role of Abigail. She runs, falls, fights off men’s advances and lounges with flair. But the favorite is clearly Colman. Perhaps best known to American audiences through the BBC’s “Broadchurch,” Colman shines as the emotional and lonely monarch.
If there is a flaw to this film is that it will trick passive movie watchers into watching Lanthimos’ other films, and they may not like what they watch. Hopefully, their nex selection is not “Dogtooth” because they may have nightmares for days.
4.5 stars out of 5
“The Favourite” is not your traditional costume drama. Director Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film about two cousins in a heated rivalry for the affections of a moody monarch boldly rips away the pretenses of English court in the early 18th century. The historical comedy-drama dives headfirst into a world of excess, where exquisite fashions, lavish dinners and even duck races are the norm, to reveal the secret dalliances, plotting and backstabbing at its core. And it’s the women who hold the power – or are conniving to get it.
The frivolous and frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) sits on the throne of England. Plagued by gout, the queen is more interested in playing with her menagerie of bunnies than ruling. Her loyal friend and adviser, Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), is actually doing the governing, which includes fighting a war with France. The no-nonsense Sarah – who has Queen Anne firmly under her control – supports the war and wants to double taxes to fund it, while the proposal meets resistance from Parliament member Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult).
The status quo changes when Sarah’s poor cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), arrives at court looking for work. Coming from a disgraced family, the ambitious Abigail wants to become a lady once again. She quickly ingratiates herself to Sarah, moving up from a maid to one of Sarah’s ladies.
After she stumbles across Queen Anne and Sarah being sexually intimate, Abigail decides to seduce the queen herself, seeing a chance to improve her station. The love triangle between the women turns into a fierce game of cat-and-mouse as Sarah and Abigail seek to outdo each other while battling for Queen Anne’s authority.
Bolstered by its stunning cinematography and masterful direction “The Favourite” spins the historical drama genre on its head. In Lanthimos’ vision of court, Queen Anne, Sarah and Abigail are dressed in ladylike splendor but utter foul language at the drop of a hat. They don’t have the time to mince words as they wield them as weapons against their male counterparts or each other.
This is my first time watching one of Lanthimos’ films. The Greek director, known for eccentric fare like “The Lobster” and the unsettling “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” demonstrates his craft of the camera here. “The Favourite” utilizes creative angles and quick pans to show different characters’ points of view. In a dancing scene at a dinner party, the sequence is shot from the perspective of the floor up. The unique angle shows how an elegant line dance can be construed as dirty dancing.
Most notably, “The Favourite” features excellent performances from its three female stars as it delves into the complex relationship between them. In most films about royalty, the men are plotting to romance the queen and take over her power. In this film, it’s the women using sex as a power play. The intricate machinations between Sarah and Abigail for Queen Anne’s favor are fascinating to watch. Both Sarah and Abigail have strengths and flaws that can make you root for each woman at different times.
Weisz shines as the domineering Sarah, who wears the pants more than any man in court. Sarah knows the right thing to say to soothe Queen Anne during an attack of gout, make her jealous or cajole the unsure monarch into giving a speech to announce the tax hike. Stone has never been more cutthroat as she is as Abigail. She gives the appearance of innocence while using her wiles to insert herself into Queen Anne’s good graces. She is a formidable match for Weisz.
But ultimately, “The Favorite” is the story of Queen Anne’s maturation. This is Colman’s show as the veteran British TV actress breathes life into the little-known English monarch. Queen Anne evolves from a self-indulgent child, fussing about her makeup, to a weary adult questioning who she can trust by the film’s end. This is a woman who has been coddled and used by those around her, a woman who is carrying around her own pain in the form of her pet rabbits. Each one reminds her of the children she lost through her 17 miscarriages. What could have been a cartoonish portrayal of a difficult ruler becomes a sympathetic one in Colman’s hands.
As strong as “The Favourite” is in its first two acts, the film wears out its welcome. The story runs out of steam in its third act, with one of its three main characters largely absent from the canvas. The ending feels anticlimactic, quite literally (you’ll know what I mean once you’ve seen the film) – which may have been Lanthimos’ intention. But considering I had to look up the film’s ending to make sure I understood it, those closing moments suffer from a poor execution that may leave its audience more confused than awed by the film.
“The Favourite” is a bold piece of filmmaking, upending the conventions of its genre. But for all its fine points, it doesn’t quite stick the landing.
3.5 stars out of 5