Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, James Smith, Mark Gatiss, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn
R for strong sexual content, nudity and language.
Buy on DVD/Blu-ray
The stuffy old English period dramas have been a mainstay of cinema since the early days. On occasion, a film like The Favourite comes along to upend convention and tell a compelling historical narrative with visceral, vicious energy.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos has been a peculiar director for some years with his 2015 quasi-futuristic satire The Lobster being is most satisfyingly quirky. The Favourite certainly gives that film a run for its money thanks to a trio of subversive performances from Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone.
The Favourite has a lot of Lanthimos’ trademark quirkiness, but it is a more straight forward period dramedy than what he’s done previously. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne, the 18th century English monarch whose short rein was filled with the kind of pablum that doesn’t often make great movies. Except for the particular series of events that form the basis for this film.
The narrative centers around the relationship between Anne and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and the introduction of her cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) who is seeking a job after her family’s financial collapse. As Abigail weeds her way into Anne’s life, Sarah plays her political hand too strongly, risking her royal friendship and allowing Abigail an opening to become the titular favorite.
While the actual historical record is far less incendiary than this film, it nevertheless provides fascinating grist for Lanthimos’ sawmill. The screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara is veined through with witty rejoinders, crass encounters, and gleefully lascivious intent. A ribald, raucous rendering of the Queen Anne/Sarah Churchill events makes for fascinating viewing and all of it perfectly tilted towards Lanthimos’ affectations as a director.
Almost the entirety of the film’s success stems from the terrific script and the performances that are crafted out of it. Colman explodes with selfish energy as she demands queenly fealty while engaging in decidedly childish entertainment. Her performance is equal parts absurd naivete and cold malevolence. She is clearly fond of being manipulated, especially if it means excessive attention given to her, but also knows when she’s had enough even if that breaking point is whispered in her ear more surreptitiously than her self-control could protect.
Weisz is the face of calm, collected manipulation. Her Sarah is a shrewd political operative using her relationship with Anne, perhaps too forcefully and falsely portrayed as sexual, to exert control over the mechanical operations of parliament, often acting in the queen’s stead when she feels particularly antisocial.
Stone, on the other hand, appears to be the kindly soul thrust into a wicked and duplicitous environment fighting for her own survival; however, as Stone conveys across the film’s length, her Abigail is just as cunning an operative as Weisz is, but may be perhaps more wickedly so.
This trio of actresses are brilliant together and apart with Nicholas Hoult and Joe Alwyn providing able support. The performances alone make this film feel more genuine and forthright than it might have in other hands, but Lanthimos’ The Favourite is a superb effort all around with gorgeous design and costumes that make for a lovely setting for this biting historical drama about love, betrayal, and pigeon-shooting.
Guarantees: Picture, Actress (Olivia Colman), Supporting Actress (Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz), Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design
Probables: Directing, Film Editing
December 20, 2018