Film Review: The Favourite

The Favourite is a wicked, feminist romp

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The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’ uproarious and acerbic followup to The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is a biting portrait of palace intrigue and feminine wile. Anchored by a trio of powerhouse performances by Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, and Olivia Colman, The Favourite is a welcome departure from Lanthimos’ past absurdist filmography, but also a fine continuation of the director’s will to challenge and entertain. Minor spoilers ahead…

In 1711, during the twilight of the Stuart period of Great Britain, an increasingly ill Queen Anne appointed a former chambermaid as Keeper of the Privy Purse, swiftly supplanting the once favored Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough. History is fuzzy as to the exact circumstances in which Abigail Hill Masham sidled up to the ailing regent, but director Yorgos Lanthimos fully mines this historical blindspot for an elaborate costume drama rife with backstabbing and acid-tongued barbs.

Lanthimos is a director with a reputation and a filmography that you either love, hate, or love-to-hate. With his trademark surrealism and biting wit, the Athens-born filmmaker relishes in making his audiences squirm - whether it’s the cult-ish Dogtooth, the absurdist The Lobster, or the extremely dark and twisted The Killing of a Sacred Deer - the last thing a Lanthimos film is, is “easy.” The Favourite, however, is one of his most straightforward films, a story moored in history and untethered from the complex sadism and uncomfortability of his previous work, but still a Lanthimos production through and through with its razor-sharp script and beautiful cinematography. 

Olivia Colman (Broadchurch, The Lobster) plays Queen Anne, a portly and gout-ridden monarch whose extremely close friendship with the Duchess of Marlborough Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) raised more than a few eyebrows even in their time. At the start of the film, Lady Sarah’s status as political proxy and confidante is absolute and unchallenged with the informal moniker of “first lady of the bedchamber.” Fully taking advantage of Anne’s physical ailments and crippling agoraphobia, the manipulative Sarah seeks to shape Great Britain in her own image - bending the course of events in her favor, and even directing the theater of war during the Anglo-French conflicts. However, Churchill’s star begins falling rapidly as soon as her cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), arrives. A wily and conniving social climber with an agenda of her own, Abigail starts in Anne’s court as a lowly chambermaid, but quickly ascends the ranks into the queen’s inner circle. The Duchess of Marlborough almost immediately smells a rat with Abigail’s presence, and with an exchanged volley of veiled threats, escalates the relationship between the three women into a triangle of deceit and dirty tricks. While on the surface this may seem dry material for much fun or comedy, The Favourite relishes in its insults and underhanded politicking with excoriating disses and a nasty sense of humor.

However, humor and wit mean next to nothing without a capable ensemble, which brings us to The Favourite’s brightest star: its cast. Olivia Colman in particular is a revelation as a tour de force of slapstick awkwardness. And even though Colman’s portrayal of Queen Anne begs for us to laugh at her incompetence and haplessness, a surprising injection of pathos and sadness invites a grounded sympathy for the mercurial queen; like her real-life counterpart, Anne over the course of her life had 17 pregnancies, with almost all of them ending in tragedy. The two vying for the titular role are no slouches either: Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz complete the trifecta with great performances, and it’s a delight to watch the two circle each other with oneupmanship that ranges from vicious verbal jabs to blackmail and poisonings. Stone’s Abigail is a powder keg of ambition and sheer will, much more duplicitous than her ice queen cousin, with her expressive face and eyes serving as windows to her inner machinations and thinly veiled selfishness. The young upstart Abigail also gets some of the film’s dirtiest and nastiest lines, a stark contrast to the relatively straight-laced Churchill. That’s not to say that Rachel Weisz doesn’t hold her own as the Duchess of Marlborough. A character that has clearly earned her place among the ineffectual men of the queen’s court, Weisz’s Sarah Churchill is all patronizing putdowns and demeaning dress-downs, navigating a predominantly male habitat with a viper’s tongue. And even though some of the excessive maneuvering and politics can wear down the audience, the film’s 120-minute runtime mostly flies by thanks to the central cast’s efforts and oftentimes hilarious political joustings.

No Yorgos Lanthimos film would be complete without some stunning cinematography, and The Favourite is no exception. With a gliding camera that aims to swallow whole the gilded halls of the queen’s palace, the film’s camera work is deft and nimble thanks to cinematographer Robbie Ryan (The Meyerowitz Stories). The film also employs some seldom seen tricks that utilize ultra-wide and fish-eye lenses, part of Lanthimos’ inability to convey anything in a conventional manner. The effect on the final film is a camera that is almost as unpredictable as the characters, an unorthodox beauty in a period costume drama.

The Favourite is in some ways Lanthimos’ most accessible film, but also expertly preserves much of the auteur’s challenging sensibilities. And as a most welcome addition in 2018’s social and political climate, the film is an ode to women warriors, even if the women themselves aren’t paragons of virtue. A feminist, political farce with an uproarious bite, The Favourite proves that historical dramas still have life and verve.

GRADE: A-