Updated: Feb 7, 2020
Part of the appeal of period pieces is they transport viewers to a different time where things seem so quaint. We can look at them and say “wow, the world has changed so much since then!” The contradictory part of the appeal of period pieces is in how they can use the past to comment so incisively on the present. We can look at them and say “wow, we really have not evolved at all since then!” It is a delicate balance between historical drama and modern social commentary. That is a thin tightrope The Favourite walks tremendously well. The fact that it is also witty and very entertaining is icing on the cake.
The story takes place in 18th century England. The country is at war with France and the Queen is in poor health, mentally as well as physically. She leans heavily on her trusted friend, Lady Sarah, for emotional support and advice on matters of state. One day, Lady Sarah’s ambitious cousin, Abigail, arrives in need of a position at the palace. Abigail’s appearance changes things dramatically, setting up a battle of wills between the cousins, with the Queen seemingly enjoying herself in the middle.
Yorgos Lanthimos is a fascinating director who does not tackle his material in a traditional way. This is by far his most accessible film, but that certainly does not make it an easy watch. The story of two women battling for Queen Anne’s favor could have been handled in any number of ways. He chose to tell it satirically in a darkly funny way.
At one point or another, The Favourite (114 minutes, minus the end credits) touches on female agency, gender roles, sexual assault, class differences and social climbing, among other things. The main plot is not particularly subtle, however there is a lot going on under the surface in the screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. So many scenes can be read in multiple ways. Lanthimos, who pretty much only makes dark satires, has absolutely no problem controlling the tone. If you can get on its wavelength, basically everything about it becomes enjoyable.
In part, that is because it contains three outstanding performances. First, there is Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah. She plays her with an enormous amount of confidence that gives way to anger and desperation. She barely even bothers to conceal the pleasure she takes in being the true power behind the throne, especially over the men in her Queen’s court. Weisz focuses on that as well as Lady Sarah’s intelligence. It is the most straight-forward arc in The Favourite because, despite her maneuvering, she is the character with the obvious motives. You may dislike Lady Sarah, though at least she is generally as she appears.
Emma Stone plays Abigail in a performance unlike any I have seen from her. She shows a sweet face while being conniving, manipulative and having very flexible morals. All she cares about is improving her position and she will go as far as she has to, whether that is playing innocent or using her sexuality to get what she wants. Stone plays her like a child who has already grown up and does not want anybody to know. I laughed quite a bit at some of her matter-of-fact line readings. She proves deft at balancing her joy of tricking others with her concern for herself.
The most difficult job belongs to Olivia Colman as the Queen. She must be regal, but also insecure. Needy and frail, but strong-willed. Playful, but capable of fierce anger. She rules a country, yet she is the least mature of the three major characters. Colman is funny, pathetic and terrifying in equal measure. In her own way, she is every ounce as opportunistic as Abigail.
All three actresses completely commit to their roles. They are mean and selfish as a way of surviving in their male-dominated world. If it were up to me, they would each get Oscar nominations.
I expect The Favourite will get several of them. This is not a stuffy period piece. Telling history is not its purpose. It may be set 300 years ago, but is as alive and relevant as any movie set in the present day. Yorgos Lanthimos is a bold filmmaker. I can never imagine him playing it safe. The premise may not be as daring as Dogtooth, The Lobster or The Killing of a Sacred Deer, yet this is as uncompromising as any of those. It is surprising, amusing, very smart and thought-provoking. This is one of the best movies of the year.
5 out of 5
Olivia Colman as Queen Anne
Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah
Emma Stone as Abigail
Nicholas Hoult as Harley
Joe Alwyn as Masham
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara