The Favourite by Yorgos Lanthimos is a period comedy-drama that’s luxurious and ludicrous. Set in 18th century England, the movie follows the power struggle between Sarah, Lady Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), vicious and tender in equal measure, newcomer Abigail (Emma Stone), a wolf dressed in lamb’s clothing, and Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), the zany and frail matriarch.
With a backdrop of sumptuous sets and clad in decadent outfits befitting the ostentatious fashions of the 18th century, the plot of The Favourite is driven by constant subterfuge, backstabbing and manipulation. Arriving as an unassuming, doe-eyed girl who’s been dealt a hard lot in life, Abigail works her way up from a kitchen maid, often the butt of harmful practical jokes at the hands of the other staff, to threatening to usurp Sarah, the Queen’s closest friend, most trusted advisor, and impressive political power.
The movie thrives on the accomplishment of the three principal actors. Weisz epitomises the dangerously calculated Sarah, radiating unapologetic dominance of those around her and throwing looks that hold more power than some actors achieve throughout their entire career. Stone successfully captures the precarious balance of Abigail’s faux-innocence, damaged humanity and merciless cunning. The jewel in the crown, however, of The Favourite’s stars is Olivia Colman: her embodiment of the Queen is one of the great accomplishments of the film. She demonstrates impressive control over the nuances of her character, carving a flawless portrayal of a dysfunctional queen trapped and isolated by her own neuroses, grief, self-pity, and an ailing body. It’s refreshing, also, that the film centres on three powerhouse historical women; we live in a society where women have been largely written out of history, and where women in movies are often accessories to male protagonists.
The court of Queen Anne subsists almost entirely on splendid, artificial displays of wealth and the back-and-forth struggle to maintain the upper hand in influencing one another. The palace is nothing short of a viper’s den, and it’s this unstable environment that keeps The Favourite taut with tension as to whose shortcomings will trip them up first.
Lanthimos throws the absurdity of the nobility of the film into stark relief. These upstanding members of society – politicians, government officials, owners of land and others’ livelihood – spend their free time racing ducks and throwing rotten fruit at each other while naked. Perhaps there is something to say for the relevance even today of this depiction of the wealthy and the consequences of excess, mediated safely through the barrier of a distant past.
The overall impression The Favourite leaves with the viewer is rather a sombre one. Between the pomp and the glamour lies a startling and troubling portrayal of the motives of humans concerning power and the vulnerable, and the inherent cruelty to which humans are inclined. Don’t let the weight of some of these themes deter you from seeing The Favourite, though – it may well prove to be one of the best films this year.
Image Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox