“The Favourite” is the second period film (the other being “Mary Queen of Scots”) I have seen in a week which plays around with historical facts to present us with something which could be more interesting compared to what happened in reality. Thankfully, director Yorgos Lanthimos has not besmirched the advertisements with the terms “based on a true story” or “inspired by actual events” as neither are necessary and would be a severe detriment to the finished film. Instead, he uses history to explore the power dynamics of people who are eager to maintain their place in life, sometimes at the expense of others. When you lose your place in society and have to fight your way back up the social ladder, you will eventually discover you are more devious than you led yourself to believe.
“The Favourite” takes us back to 18th century Britain during the reign of Queen Anne when the British were at war with the French. Queen Anne is played by Olivia Colman, and she makes this historical figure into a wonderfully eccentric human being who finds great glee in racing geese with her friends or playing with her 17 rabbits, each one representing a child she had later lost. She is also beset by a terrible case of gout which has her moaning and wailing in extraordinary pain during the night, and it is only with the help of her many servants that she can get through the day. When it comes to governing, however, she is not really inclined to do so.
Anne’s closest confidant proves to be the Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill, played by Rachel Weisz. Sarah is more than comfortable with the knowledge that she is the one ruling over Britain as she passing on her confidences and advisements to the Queen. We also eventually learn the two are lovers who share in secret trysts together when the rest of the world isn’t watching. It makes one wonder if love is what’s keeping them together, or if the quest for power conquers everything else.
Into the picture comes Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), Sarah’s cousin whose good name was ruined by her father due to his gambling problems which had him selling her off to a German to settle debts. Poor and desperate for work, Abigail pleads with Sarah to give her a job, and she gets what amounts to an entry level position as a maid where she does the most menial of chores. While scrubbing the floors, she endures a chemical burn which proves to be almost as bad as the one Brad Pitt gave Edward Norton in “Fight Club.”
“The Favourite” gets off to a fantastic start as it introduces the main characters with relish, and this includes Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult is fantastic), the Earl of Oxford, who is infinitely eager to get the inside coup on the Queen’s plans before they are made public. But the movie really hits its stride when Abigail begins to ingratiate herself not just with Sarah, but also with Queen Anne. It starts with Abigail finding herbs to ease the inflammation in the Queen’s legs, and from there she insinuates herself into the Queen’s life and her bed.
The scenes between Stone and Weisz in which they shoot birds for sport is sinfully delightful as they subtly test one another to see where their vulnerabilities lie. When guns are aimed in directions which threaten their existence or get blood on their faces, its to let the other know they are to be taken seriously and not be trifled with. Not once do either of them have to tell the other “don’t mess with me” or “be careful where you tread” because their actions prove to be much louder than words. Still, it doesn’t stop either from trying to get the upper hand, and they do have their own unique ways of pulling this off.
Weisz has one of her best roles to date here as Sarah as she struggles to maintain her power in spite of Abigail’s deceitful intentions. Just watching her face makes one see how much she enjoyed portraying a character who reveled in a power very few people could ever hope to have without being of royalty. Of course, when the tables turn, her face tells a different story, and I admired how subtle she was in making these painful realizations so subtle and yet deeply felt at the same time. Not once does Weisz mug for the camera or go over the top as she does just enough to show how her world is crumbling slowly but surely.
Stone could have stood out like a sore thumb here, being the sole American actor here among so many Brits. But what surprised me about her performance is how English she appeared to where it almost took me a bit to recognize her. Not only does Stone fit perfectly into this ensemble of actors with what seems like relative ease, she pulls off a remarkably effective English accent. Like Weisz, she is also subtle in the ways of showing her power, and the way she infiltrates the Queen’s home and her life is great as she makes sleeping nude with Queen look like flipping the bird to her flabbergasted opponent.
But let’s face it, “The Favourite” truly belongs to Colman who gives a tour de force performance as Queen Anne. The English actress has appeared in such movies as “Hot Fuzz,” “The Iron Lady,” and Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” and there is no forgetting her after watching her here. Coleman takes this character from ecstatic comedic heights to dramatic depths as she makes this Queen a basket case but also a leader who will rise to the occasion when her rule is threatened (or when Sarah or Abigail lead her to believe so). In her last scene, she makes clear who is in charge as the movie’s title is called into question.
This is the first Yorgos Lanthimos directed movie I have seen. I was hoping to watch “The Lobster” one night with my family, but no one could decide on what to watch other than the opening sequence of “Spectre.” Lanthimos has done a skillful job of making this far more than the average stuffy period movie to where his inclusion of an Elton John song over the end credits doesn’t feel out of place in the slightest. Being a comedy drama, the balance could have easily been uneven, but that’s not the case here as this movie feels perfectly realized. If there any flaws to be found, they probably won’t come up until long after you have walked out of the theater.
I saw “The Favourite” with my parents, and they found it to be a bit weird. True, it’s ending is abrupt as it dissolves into a collage of images to where you wonder what exactly is being said. But I loved watching the power plays between the characters who are rendered not as caricatures, but as human beings driven to extremes for one reason or another. It makes me wonder why certain people can become so selfish to the point where the needs and feelings of others do not matter in the slightest. However, I reminded of a lyric from the Peter Gabriel song “Family Snapshot:”
“If you don’t get given you learn to take, and I will take you.”