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Review: The Favourite

December 26, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek auteur behind such singular works as Dogtooth, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, crafts his most widely accessible film yet with The Favourite, without losing any of his usual bite.

Set in England in the early years of the 18th century, and released at the height of awards season, The Favourite might sound like a pretty typical costume drama, at least on a surface level.

But in the hands of Lanthimos, what we get instead is a darkly comic and sometimes twisted look at the reign of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) from 1702 to 1714, and the lesbian love triangle that she allegedly found herself in the middle of, that turns the usual costume drama formula on its head.

Queen Anne is depicted here as a somewhat weak and indecisive leader with a hot temper, made worse by the fact that she is suffering from a very painful case of gout and has become frail. With England at war with the French, the country is essentially being governed by her close friend and confidante Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough.

But things take a turn when Sarah’s estranged cousin Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), a former society lady who has since fallen from grace after being sold out by her father and is desperate to regain her place up the social ladder, arrives at the palace to work as a servant. Abigail aligns herself closely with Queen Anne and is quickly promoted to lady-in-waiting, and eventually starts to overtake Sarah’s place as both the Queen’s closest advisor and secret bedmate, leading to intense rivalries between them.

There is a romantic component to the relationships that Sarah and Abigail have with the Queen, which is kept secret from those around them, but these are not just affairs of passion. There are deeper political motivations behind their jostling for Queen Anne’s attention, centred around the partisan rivalries between the ruling Whigs and opposition Tories. This is very much a story of two women jockeying for control of the country, with whoever is in Queen Anne’s bed essentially holding the balance of power.

Sarah is closely aligned with her husband Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss) and the Whigs, who are pushing for Queen Anne to approve a tax hike on landowners to help finance the ongoing war, while Abigail’s friendship with the opposition leader Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) allows her to pull the Queen’s governance more in the direction of the Tories, who are staunchly opposed to an increase in the tax. The Queen is easily swayed, depending on who appeals to her desires.

The writing here is fiendishly clever, and there is no mistaking this for a stodgy period piece. The film is bolstered by a brilliantly witty script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, which provides the actors with plenty of sharply acerbic dialogue exchanges that are delivered with the dryest of tones. Who knows if these historical figures actually spoke in such an acid-tongued way – and several other dramatic (or comedic) liberties have been taken – but this approach makes every conversation feel engagingly fresh and gives the film a sort of modern relevance that carries through to the current era.

The film is carried by marvellous performances from its trio of leads, who are all brilliant in their own unique ways. Colman brings multiple layers of depth to her portrayal of an incapacitated and deeply self-conscious monarch who is desperate to appear as if she is still in control, and Weisz is exceptional at illustrating her own character’s shades of grey. Lady Sarah schemes to get ahead, and is clearly using her place in the palace for her own personal and political gain, but deep down she does seem to genuinely care about Queen Anne, and Weisz captures these nuances extremely well.

Last but certainly not least, Stone does an excellent job of portraying Abigail, delivering one of her best performances. At first, Lady Sarah seems like the more antagonistic of the two, especially compared to the initially charming and likeable Abigail. But we soon come to realize that Abigail’s own Machiavellian tendencies run deep, and that she is using her seeming naiveté like a mask to hide a cold and ruthless streak buried underneath. As she goes to increasingly great lengths to regain her place in the social hierarchy, Stone handles her character’s transition into psychotic territory brilliantly.

Lanthimos directs this all with a carefully measured tone that will be familiar to followers of his work. While he somewhat surprisingly doesn’t share a writing credit on The Favourite, making it the first one of his films in quite some time that he didn’t co-write, this is still unmistakably a Lanthimos film, and it features many of his signature touches. The director brings his usual deadpan style to the proceedings as he scathingly satirizes aristocratic society folks, while also playing around on a larger canvas and allowing for moments of broader physical comedy.

Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is frequently astounding, with several shots utilizing fisheye lenses that work to heighten the film’s more eccentric flourishes, distorting the shape of the Palace rooms to make them appear both larger and more claustrophobic. The production design offers a sumptuous feast for the eyes, and Sandy Powell’s costumes are beautifully crafted. The film looks positively regal, which just makes the ironic juxtaposition of the catty behaviour and backstabbing going on within these royal halls all the more pleasurable for us to observe.

The film plays as a perfectly pitched and sometimes absurd comedy of manners, offering a highly entertaining sendup of the personal and political machinations of the royal court, yet at the same time it is also a deeply sad look at women yearning for love but lusting for power. As we reach the confounding and brilliantly composed final scene, we are left wondering if what we are watching is a comedy or a tragedy. As it turns out, like all of Lanthimos’s films, it’s both and it’s neither. The humour is found in the suffering, with nary a dividing line between the two.

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