In the year 1708, Great Britain is in a state of war with France. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is suffering gout and stricken by mental illness, while her rule is dominated by the scheming Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Malborough (Rachel Weisz). One day Sarah is visited by her impoverished cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), who is looking for work in court – although her ambitions prove so great that soon she and Sarah are tearing down the court around them in a battle for the Queen’s affections.
The Favourite is a real treat. It is effectively an arthouse comedy, applying all manner of structural and aesthetic techniques to create a strangely formal and claustrophobic drama but then applying it all to a gut-bustingly funny and savage screenplay. Deborah Davis first wrote The Favourite back in 1998; it has taken 20 years to bring her work to the screen, but it is absolutely worth the wait. Pairing her writing with the direction of critical darling Yorgos Lanthimos is a master stroke. This feels like a unique film, one that marries style and substance in a vivid and engrossing fashion.
The film circles around three captivating female protagonists. First and foremost, Olivia Colman is superb as Anne. She is one of the most talented and effective women in British film and television, and has been for some years, but it feels as if The Favourite is her break-out moment. She has already won a Golden Globe for her work here, and I imagine an Academy Award nomination at least will be in the offing for her. Her comedy skills are pitch-perfect, presenting Anne as a sort of pathetic over-grown child, but then a fierce dramatic undercurrent slips out midway through the film. She has 17 pet rabbits; when their full purpose becomes clear it cuts through the film with the sharpest of knives.
Rachel Weisz has always struck me as a slightly underrated performer, but she is in grand form as Sarah. Steely cold ambition on her part, combined with Anne’s frailties, puts her in a fascinating position. She clearly demonstrates genuine affection for her Queen, but at the same time controls her with the kind of blunt ruthlessness that makes you question those affections at the same time. It is an abusive relationship, one that gives Sarah enormous power that she is clearly taking for granted. She fully realises Abigail’s manipulative activities much too late in the piece, leading to a growing sense of desperation as she struggles to retain Anne’s affections.
Casting Emma Stone, an American, as Abigail is easily the film’s boldest casting choice. It is the best work Stone has undertaken to date: her accent is near flawless, and her behaviour deliberately confusing and obscure. Her actions are clear, but her true motivations are not. It creates a puzzle for the viewer, and if the film has a key fault it is that this myself – once set – is not well developed or concluded. There is an effective question, but no satisfactory answer. It is just one of a few key disappointments in the film’s third act, when bleak comedy transitions to a more ordinary sense of drama as Deborah Davis’ screenplay struggles to pull together a satisfactory conclusion.
While the ending is flawed, the journey to get there is wonderful. The film embraces a homosexual love triangle between its leads that feels naturalistic and sensibly handled, and which avoids any sense of sleaze or sensationalism. Its use of coarse language in a historical context is the most effective I’ve seen since HBO’s Deadwood. Its use of on-screen chapter titles help to focus the film’s episodic nature and turn a potential flaw into a strength. It is also beautifully shot with some extreme wide-angle shots that curve the surroundings around the characters and visually trap them inside their own struggles. The Favourite is definitely too long by a solid 15 minutes or so, but it sustains itself for almost its entire length with sharp and brutal comedy, superb performances, and stunning locations and costumes. This is one of the best films of the past year.