History has rarely been so playfully nasty as it is in the latest from director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer). Set in the court of Queen Anne (played to mind-warped perfection by Olivia Colman) in early-18th century England, The Favourite rides the line between tragic and comic with great abandon, as it examines the excesses of the rich and powerful as well as those who wish to sully their favor for personal and political gain. Winner of the Special Grand Jury Prize and Best Actress Prize for Colman at the Venice Film Festival, the film tells the story of two women who battle for the affections of the queen in order to rise up through the ranks and effectively rule the nation, which is currently bleeding money thanks to an extended war with France.
Established early on, Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) holds the strings that control Anne’s policies and heart. Despite being married to war hero Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), Lady Sarah is the queen’s constant companion, both in and out of bed. Anne herself is in fragile physical health (thanks in large part to an appalling diet) and mentally unwell, wanting little more than for her gout-ridden legs to be rubbed while she lays in bed. This leaves bigger-picture decisions to Lady Sarah, who happens to be a masterful strategist with a savvy mind for politics.
Into this long-standing and cozy situation arrives Abigail (Emma Stone), a distant relation to Lady Sarah, who is looking for any type of employment. She’s given a lowly maid’s job, but finds ways to elevate herself through the servants’ ranks, soon becoming Sarah’s lady in waiting, putting her in a position to casually—but quite purposefully—cross paths with the queen. Gradually allowing her hidden charms and brains to reveal themselves to Anne, Abigail soon becomes her majesty’s new favorite pet and romantic interest, leaving Lady Sarah furious but far from powerless to retaliate.
One of the most amusing aspects of The Favourite (written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara) is how the fate of the nation plays out in the background of this jockeying for the queen’s affections. It’s almost a petty distraction in the face of this full-scale warfare playing out between these two women, but it’s not entirely absent from the story. One of the film’s great joys is seeing Nicholas Hoult as the delightfully foppish Harley, who finds ways to work with Abigail to unseat Lady Sarah, while stealthily pushing his own agenda concerning the war with France.
With all of this in-fighting going on in the foreground, it’s actually Colman who steals our attention for every second she’s on screen. Queen Anne’s story is a sad one—she’s given birth to 17 children, all of whom either died at birth or soon thereafter. She’s a crumbling human being, whose unpredictable temper is only matched by her strange affection for her large collection of rabbits that occupy her bed chamber. It’s a big performance that is also incredibly nuanced and sublimely amusing. She occupies all emotions at once, and that makes her unpredictable and extremely volatile as a personality. It’s a masterful acting exercise and The Favourite’s greatest resource, in a film loaded with great performers.
The Favourite shows us a time when being cruel wasn’t about simply hitting someone over the head until they were out of the game (like today); it was about the surgical removal of a rival. It was one-upmanship at an Olympic level, and this movie captures that brilliantly, making it one of the most exceptional works of the year.
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