OnScreen Review: "The Favourite"

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Ken Jones

  • Chief Film Critic

Yorgos Lanthimos is one of my favorite active directors. His films are always unique and guaranteed to be at least a little shocking and probably borderline disturbing. His 2015 film The Lobster remains one of my favorite films of this decade. After last year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos is back with The Favourite, a period psychodrama about the court of Queen Anne.

Lanthimos packs a lot into his films, but at the heart of them all seems to be stories about relationships and relationship dynamics. Dogtooth is about two sisters whose parents have not let them leave the house. Alps is a film about people acting as surrogates of deceased loved ones for the grieving family members left behind. The Lobster demands that its characters find a partner and marry or be turned into an animal of their choosing. The Killing of a Sacred Deer sees a family dynamic slowly crumble and the father having to make an extreme choice because he took an interest in a young man’s life. With The Favourite, it’s about the dynamics at play between the Queen, her top adviser and closest friend, and a newcomer who subtly weaves her way into the Queen’s good graces and becomes a rival for her attention.

Queen Anne ruled from 1702 to 1714. Portrayed in the film by Olivia Coleman, she is in slightly failing health and questionable mental stability. Always by her side is her childhood friend and close advisor and trusted confidant Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough. In the early stages of a war with France, Anne is under pressure from the Tories and Whigs as to how best execute the war and fund it. In the midst of this pressure arrives Abigail (Emma Stone), a distant and destitute cousin of Lady Sarah, looking for a chance to work and a place to say. Starting off meekly, Abigail proves to be a quick learner in the game of palace intrigue and is soon vying with her cousin for the affections and ear of the Queen.

Over the course of the film, the dynamics between the three characters change, but so do the perceptions of each character. Abigail arrives to court rather unceremoniously. Coming from a situation where her father essentially sold her to cover his debts to an older man who had his way with her, she instantly earns the sympathies of the viewer. As the film progresses, though, she learns to play the game, so to speak, and begins manipulating people around her to secure not just her future but her relevance and value to the Queen and the court. As a follow-up to her Oscar-winning performance in La La Land, it’s a great new direction from Stone; for the first time she’s playing a character who is not entirely likeable and the audience will always be on her side rooting for her.

Lady Sarah is a character with a quick wit, a sharp tongue, and a focus and determination to see things through. She is about as no-nonsense as they come and essentially runs the day-to-day business of the Queen. She is a master manipulator and has the ear of the Queen, emphasizing the importance to press on in the war with France that is being led by her husband, Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), even if it means taxing the people to the point of breaking. That also puts her in frequent verbal sparring matches with Harley (Nicholas Hoult), who represents opposition to the war. By the time it becomes clear Abigail is playing a game, it begins to become clear that it is not just a game for Lady Sarah, but that her actions come from a deep place of care, affection, and loyalty to the Queen; even if she does not have what is best for England in her mind, she may be the only one who is truly looking out for the Queen. Weisz, who was also in The Lobster, gives a great deadpan comedic performance for most of the film, only occasionally letting some vulnerability show.

The strength of the film, though, comes in the form of Olivia Coleman’s Queen Anne. At first blush, she’s made to be the object of ridicule and mockery, an insecure and off-kilter ruler who battles painful gout and needs to be wheeled around the palace, owns an unhealthy amount of rabbits that she keeps in her bedroom, and is prone to eating cake to the point of vomiting. She has sudden outbursts and mood changes. It’s easy to make her an oafish and pitiful ruler who is completely out of her depth. And yet, she goes from being ridiculous and pitiful to someone almost entirely sympathetic. When it is revealed that she is childless despite being pregnant nearly 20 times in her life, it’s easy to understand why she is a mentally and emotionally fragile person. No stranger to Lanthimos herself having also appeared in The Lobster, Coleman plays her perfectly, from her most absurd and outrageous to her most broken and undignified and everything in between.

The interaction between the three women is a delight to witness. At one point, the hostility between Abigail and Lady Sarah ratchets up in a way that rivals the escalating tension between Max Fischer and Herman Blume in Rushmore. Lanthimos add his own unique twists and dark sense of humor to this real-life triangle. It starts out being his most straightforward and accessible film to date, but soon enough it is in familiar Lanthimos territory as a twisted little concoction that produces laughs in addition to complex character psychology.

Three independent women, one a Queen, one her shrewd advisor, and other the advisor’s upwardly mobile cousin take center stage in The Favourite. Much like Lady Sarah’s aims in the war with France, the interpersonal dynamics between these three turns into victory at any cost. Yorgos Lanthimos has an almost sadistic glee in showing through these three women that victory at any cost ultimately produces an unhappy outcome. The ends do not justify the means in the world of Yorgos Lanthimos. They always exact too high a price.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

*The Favourite was shown as part of Telluride by the Sea in Portsmouth, NH back in September. It is still showing at various festivals and is scheduled for a theatrical release on November 23rd.*