The Favourite is the best thing to ever happen to Queen Anne of Great Britain. It may not be fair to say that her 12-year reign in the early 18th century has been forgotten, but amongst the Henrys, Victorias, and Elizabeths (first and second) that have been immortalized in film, she is at least obscure. You could be forgiven for not knowing her life was filled with war, politics, sex, illness, madness and even free-roaming bunnies.
In The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos finds room for it all, and more. The film finds Great Britain in burgeoning crisis, as an ongoing war with France has the people and government on edge. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), however, is distracted by physical pain from gout and a slipping grip on reality. The country is really run by her close friend and adviser Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Her relationship with Anne – friendly, contentious, sexual – gives her insurmountable power, and she wields it with an acid-tipped tongue, often aimed at the staff or her political rival Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult). Sarah’s puppet monarchy is interrupted by the mud-stained arrival of her cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) searching for a job. Shrewd and observant, Abigail sets her sights on the Queen and uses Sarah’s preoccupation with politics to slither her way into Anne’s favor (and bed). When Sarah catches on, it’s full-blown warfare, with the Queen gleefully caught in the middle.
The Favourite is an unapologetic dark comedy, and like its ladies-in-waiting, the film pulls no punches, to genuinely hilarious effect. Using Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s razor-sharp screenplay as a sword, Lanthimos cuts through the messy web of Queen Anne’s court with brisk, unflinching clarity. Every slap, choke, book toss, and kick into a ditch is plainly shown and thoroughly felt. When he does linger, on a bizarre dance-offs, or duck-racing through Palace halls, or bird shooting, it’s to highlight the heightened absurdity of the Royal household. The physical antics are just jewels on the crown that is the brilliant script. A clear descendant of All About Eve, The Favourite’s screenplay is soaked in stinging venom, filled to the brim with shady, vicious one-liners (Sarah’s “you like a badger” dig to Anne alone is deserving of the Best Original Screenplay Oscar).
The Favourite’s brutal, acerbic humor is in service to the portraits of three complex women within the complex structure of monarchy. While Anne’s questionable sanity makes her an easy source for comedy, Lanthimos also understands the value of her tragedy and maintains a sense of dignity and agency for her. Anne’s bunnies, for instance, initially appear to be an eccentricity; they in fact represent the 17 children that she lost. Anne may suffer from a lack of focus and hysterical antics, but she is acutely aware of her power and will wield it when pushed too far. The film’s best moments have Sarah and Abigail stretching the limits of their respective influence over Anne. Sarah has the benefit of experience and intelligence, while Abigail has youth and perceived innocence on her side. They both think that their strengths outweigh their weaknesses of ambition and hubris, but that, combined with their underestimation of Anne, is ultimately their downfall. Even with the scheming, manipulation and cruelty that color their messy triangle, the film is sympathetic to their individual perspectives. Sarah is genuinely fond of Anne, and struggles when they are apart. Abigail is seeking a higher position after years of being subjected to sexual exploitation. It’s rare enough for a film with three female lead characters to exist; it’s wonderful for them to be treated with such nuance. The film’s only bum notes come when they’re interacting with men (Abigails’ relationship with Samuel Marsham feels particularly superfluous).
The incredible triumvirate of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are central to The Favourite‘s success, and all are deserving of awards recognition for their performances. They all roughly share the same amount of screen time, but it is Colman’s bravura turn as Queen Anne that is the film’s driving force. She modulates between high-level mania, childlike fragility, sensuality and aching sadness with laser-like precision. It is an incredible performance and a rightful frontrunner for the Best Actress Oscar. Meanwhile, Weisz and Stone are competing in the Supporting Actress category, and both turn in worthy performances. Weisz is mesmerizing, conveying a casual brutality and arrogant intelligence that make every insult (and book) she throws a delight to watch. Abigail is cunning and opportunistic, but Stone never loses sight of the reasons behind it, especially in the film’s final moments. While Weisz’s work stands out the most of the two, there isn’t a false note amongst the three women, or the rest of the cast for that matter.
Genuinely funny, poignant and surprisingly relevant, The Favourite is easily one of the year’s best films. If its artistic achievements weren’t enough, the film also offers one of the most interesting portrayals of a British monarch in recent memory. Troubled in her own time and lost to history, The Favourite has given Queen Anne a new lease on life.
Long may she reign (over this Oscar season).
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