Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone
A Wikipedia perusal of Queen Anne’s reign during the early 18th century will reveal an emphasis on her unlikely rise to the throne—a combination of political alliances forged by religious affiliation and familial betrayals—as well as the tragedy that hounded her personal life. Seventeen of her offspring died as well as her husband. There are only two sentences devoted to the in-court fighting between the queen’s childhood friend Sarah Churchill and Sarah’s cousin Abigail Hill who would soon ascend to the position of Keeper of the Privy Purse. The fact that Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) focuses on this small footnote of intrigue instead of the larger sweep of history should give you a hint that The Favourite is no stodgy costume drama.
The setting is early 1700s England, and a war with France is raging. But The Favourite’s feminist leanings are thoroughly modern, and the sound of distant cannon fire is replaced with shots fired over the course of diabolical intra-court scheming. Olivia Colman plays the physically addled Anne, downed by gout and later a stroke, who at the beginning is in thrall to her longtime friend and trusted adviser Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Lady Sarah is the true power in the realm, pushing the Queen to appoint more Whigs to high positions and to refuse any overtures of peace from the French, much to the chagrin of the leader of the Tory opposition, Lord Harley (Nicholas Hoult). Into this charged atmosphere enters Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), Lady Sarah’s cousin, who has fallen upon hard times due to her father’s gambling. Sarah takes pity on Abigail, initially employing her as a scullery maid—a big mistake, because even though Sarah is handy with a pistol, it is Abigail who wields her feminine wiles like a lethal weapon.
If you’re coming to The Favourite for historical accuracy, don’t—even the lesbian battle of wills at its center isn’t supported by documented fact, only by accusatory letters. The film is less interested in getting history and the politics of the time right than it is in having nasty fun watching capable women tear each other down. That’s because it is the only recourse for advancement left to them in a society run by effete men, who are all entirely shunted to the sidelines in their powdered wigs and infantile diversions. This voyeuristic sensation is heightened by Lanthimos’ use of fish-eye lenses during moments when the camera is supposed to capture the height and breadth of the court’s interiors, making the edges of long hallways and opulent chambers curve into forced perspective, as if you were looking at them through a goldfish bowl.
And—oh!—what wonderfully flawed humans we are given to look at! The erudite, sinewy script by Deborah Davis (supposedly knocking around development hell since the 90s) and Tony McNamara gifts its three principal actresses with layered characters, and they reward with three magnificent performances. Stone gets the most obvious arc as Abigail, whose wide, guileless eyes mask the trauma of someone who has been kicked down by powerful men and the mercenary instincts of someone who will make sure that never happens again. Weisz has the bigger challenge playing the woefully complacent Sarah, going from swaggering condescension to cool malice to befuddled desperation without breaking a sweat. This duo’s machinations are reminiscent of the underhanded tricks in the 1950 film All About Eve; The fact that Bette Davis delivered her most iconic line (“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night!”) in a cinched-waist gown very identical to an 18th-century corset is a stark visual reminder that strangling women’s liberties is a practice that spans centuries.
The apex of the triangle is occupied by Olivia Colman, whose bumbling neediness provides The Favourite with much of its early comedy. Her Queen Anne then undergoes a subtle transformation: As she perceives more and more the ulterior motives of the people around her, she goes from a monarch trying to locate her sanity to one that locates her power instead—and decides to use it like a blunt instrument. Anne, as The Favourite conceives her, is a character that cycles from the tragedy of victim to the tragedy of victimizer, and watching her come to scabrous life in Colman’s hands is an amazing experience. Colman’s justly Oscar-nominated performance gives Lanthimos’ acidic satire unexpected depth. The Favourite is biting farce that leaves a mark.
The Favourite opens Wednesday, February 20 exclusively in Ayala Malls.