I’m not normally a fan of period films that focus on the politics of British royalty. Unless they’re combined with action and are larger in scope like Mel Gibson’s Braveheart or Michael Caton-Jones’ Rob Roy, and even then I normally find myself quite bored with all the quibbling, backstabbing and royal shenanigans that are typical for these types of movies. At first glance, The Favourite appears to fit the type of movie I’d normally pass on as it follows the behind-the-scenes conflict between cousins Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) as they compete for the royal favour of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman).
However the trailer for this film caught my attention with its quirky and humorous vibe so I thought I’d give it a chance. And I’m glad I did. The Favourite proved very enjoyable, with stand-out performances that made me laugh and be anxious as I wondered who would get screwed over next by their shrewd adversary.
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), The Favourite focuses on the relationship triangle between Lady Sarah, Abigail and Queen Anne. Lady Sarah and Queen Anne already have an established intimate relationship that allows Lady Sarah to bully, manipulate and coerce the Queen into doing her bidding while also providing her a very senior position in court. Queen Anne is in poor health, lonely, suffering from low self-esteem and demonstrating signs of madness, showing minimal interest in governing the country which allows Lady Sarah to effectively run the government for her own pro-war interests with France. Opposition to escalating the war further comes from Harley (Nicholas Hoult), a member of Parliament who stoutly opposes the proposed increase in land taxes to pay for the unpopular conflict.
The status quo changes when Abigail, Lady Sarah’s impoverished cousin, arrives in search of employment and manages to gain the attention of Queen Anne when she provides herbal pain relief to the Queen’s painful condition of gout. With Abigail’s ambition for further status in court and Lady Sarah’s need to protect her position with Queen Anne, things turn very nasty very quickly as the Queen allows the two to compete for her affection and favour. While the story primarily focuses on the degradation of character between Lady Sarah and Abigail as they do their best to destroy each other, the Queen finds some improvement in her character and self esteem as a result of the “kindness” received from Abigail, despite the further diminishing of her health.
While the story and dialogue makes for a very entertaining experience, what really makes this film stand out are the performances of the three lead female actors. Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone give incredible performances I expect will garner them all award nominations. Olivia Colman shows her amazing acting range portraying the very complex character of Queen Anne. She is absolutely convincing as a figurehead of power in constant pain and living in a world that doesn’t yet know how to deal with mental illness. She’s also a woman in power who is also vulnerable, lonely and living with the loss of 17 children which she tries to fill the void with her pet rabbits.
You really feel sorry for the Queen when you realize how lonely and bored she is despite all her power. All she really wants is someone to love her and somebody who will want to spend time with her, which is precisely what Abigail capitalizes on.
Olivia Colman manages to encapsulate all of this in a stunning performance that blew me away. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone also show their acting chops, actualizing the terrible parts of human nature in their bid for power, status and affection. We see the ambition and anger in their eyes, their mannerisms tell us these are women one should not mess with. At no point during their performances do you stop and think you are watching Rachel Weisz or Emma Stone, but Lady Sarah and Abigail fully realized in all their dark glory as they do whatever it takes to win. They are strong but with everything to lose.
My only real issue with the film was how it was filmed. Fisheye lense shots are very common, as are the abrupt and shaky camera movements I found more annoying and distracting than stylistic. This cinematic choice made the film feel amateurish at times and it took away from the viewing experience. The music was also distracting, an odd mixture of classical and modern compositions that felt jarring when heard in contrast to the film’s historical nature.
Overall, The Favourite is a great film and worthy of many acting accolades. I enjoyed it immensely and was surprised at how funny and moving it was. Regardless how historically accurate or faithful to history this story may be, watching this trifecta of empowered women battle each other for affection proved to be irresistible for this film fan. However, despite the humour, engaging story and magnificent locations and costumes, the film’s quirky nature, along with its cinematic style, may not be for everyone. But go in with an open mind and you just might come away impressed.