3.5 out of 5 stars.
Everything about “The Favourite” defies expectations, which really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise for a film from Yorgos Lanthimos, the director behind such bizarre works as 2015’s “The Lobster” and 2017’s “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” It looks like a pretty period piece set in the royal courts of eighteenth century England, but doesn’t waste any time exposing the ugliness behind the façade of propriety, with the clambering for power of its three female leads as the focal point.
“The Favourite” is set at a time when England is at war with France. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) sits on the throne, but is physically weak and incredibly eccentric, leaving her advisor Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) to handle the affairs of the state. But Sarah’s control over Anne weakens when her down-on-her-luck cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) turns up at the palace seeking employment. Abigail uses her knowledge of herbs to help ease Anne’s pain from gout and to get into both her and Sarah’s good graces, but it isn’t long before jealousy, love, and the quest for power tear Abigail and Sarah’s buddying friendship apart, as they both drift in and out of the Queen’s favor.
Based on the real relationship these women had that has been gleaned by historians from their letters, “The Favourite” is catty, vulgar, and darkly hilarious entertainment. The screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara is witty, subverting expectations for the genre while making its three leads deeply complex. None of these women are good in the slightest; they do what they can to win the Queen’s favor and get want they want, even if they must act outside their moral code to do so. The audience may not be able to emphasize with them; rather, we may look on them with an odd mixture of pity and respect, as they are intelligent and manipulative enough to control not only the queen but a government filled with men, but cannot manage their wild rivalry between each other. The cinematography further adds to the feeling that something is off; the actors are often shot at interesting angles (from below, for instance), with many of the wide shots using a fisheye lens to literally distort appearances.
The excellence cast includes Mark Gatiss as Sarah’s husband, the Duke of Marlborough, Nicholas Hoult as Robert Harley, the Parliament member constantly at odds with Sarah as to the use of taxes to fund the war, and Joe Alwyn as Samuel Masham, a nobleman who courts Abigail. But it’s the women at the center of the story who deliver career-defining performances. Stone is delightful as Abigail, as she navigates a story that takes her character from fairly innocent to cold-blooded and ruthless. Weisz is also excellent as the almost scarily tough Sarah, who dotes on the Queen but wouldn’t hesitate to take down anyone who threatens her position. But it’s Colman’s Queen Anne who commands every scene. She delivers a lot of the script’s dry humor with ease, while also portraying a woman who is mentally and physically frail after years of sickness and heart-break. She may be as susceptible to jealously and manipulation as Sarah and Abigail, but it’s wonderful to see how she subtly exercises her power to show that despite all they do, she is the one who is in control of them.
The primary flaw of “The Favourite” is that in the end it doesn’t pack as much of a punch as it’s insane first few acts indicate. For a film that has its characters exhibiting increasingly volatile behavior, its final act is quite subdued and the ending abrupt. Perhaps that’s just another way that it turns the audiences’ expectations around on them, but it makes the film subpar compared to Lanthimos’ previous, more original, work. Still, it’s a humorous take on the absurd workings of the royal court, as well as an intriguing study on how love and jealousy can feed into each other, making monsters of us all.
Runtime: 119 minutes. Rated R.