Vying for the sole affection of Queen Anne – and all the status that comes with it – two cousins from different stations stoke a bitter rivalry in Yorgos Lanthimos exquisitely-mounted The Favourite. Scrumptiously rancorous, Lanthimos’ foray into costume drama is a series of verbal death matches, its characters clawing at one another’s reputation, the performances from its perfectly-cast stars provide each and every syllable of Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s wonderfully cutting script a searing eclipse of clever-wit, cunning undercuts and good-humor that never second-guesses going straight for the jugular.
Handsome as hell, The Favourite is an exquisitely-mounted piece of film to behold. Filming in Hertfordshire’s Hatfield House, the film’s decadent setting make one feel as if they’re stepped into a 18th-century English castle because they actually have, resurrected by resplendent detail-work and production design. The vast expanses of these Hatfield House seek to draw out the hollowness of the characters dwelling within them, as they disappear into the expansive rooms that quarter them; living ghosts that haunt their royal chambers. Per Lanthimos, “”From the beginning, I had this image of these lonely characters in huge spaces” and he often uses a fish-eye lens to emphasis the vastness yawning out of every space. And none are lonelier than Queen Anne. Performed with career-best verve by Olivia Colman, Anne is a tortured character, suffering physical and emotional tolls, gout and melancholia hampering her every activity. She’s no self-confidence, evident especially in court as she navigates the Spanish Succession and a land war with France. Members of the Whig and opposition party (including Nicholas Hoult’s ill-tempered Harley) seek her ear by route of her favor.
Everyone has something to gain by positioning themselves closer to the queen but none so much as confidante, friend, and secret-lover Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), whose husband heads the Queen’s army. Cluttering up the status quo, Emma Stone’s Abigail arrives, caked in mud and literal poo, a lowly cleaner with high aspirations, and an assassin’s smile. Abigail quickly vaults her way up the ladder by winning Queen Anne’s affections, much to her reputable cousin Sarah’s chagrin and so erupts a cantankerous, envious triangle between Queen Anne, Abigail, and Sarah.
All three leading women are outstanding. Colman sells Anne’s insecurities, her need to be coddled, her pestilence and explosiveness, her frazzled, dazed unsureness, and her (somewhat rare) good heart. She is royalty desperate for love, physical touch, and appreciation, unsure which poisons fester in which relationship and where true loyalties lie. Weisz gives Sarah the iron will of a battle-tested general, bitter but cunning, seasoned in her strategies. As Abigail, Stone works through a range of faces – the innocent pleaser, the bruising seductress, the stealthy courtier. Even among such thespian excellence, she’s transcendent. The later two have already earned their keep (and fully earn another bout in the Academy’s ring), the former more than deserving of her overdue day in the sun.
Although Lanthimos did not pen The Favourite (as he has with all his other features), it still feels indistinguishably his. Cankerous and otherworldly, the film is loaded with bite, booby-trapped with snap; directed with an almost alien tilt and slyly hysterical throughout, from its oddly-named chapters to its wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing doublespeak. The acerbic dialogue snaps, crackles, and pops, leaving me in a near-constant state of giddy glee. As the characters finger through the weapons in their arsenal – love, sex, adoration, honestly, power – a war of words unleash that’s impossible to not be overtaken by like a powerful current. I could watch these women undercut each other all day, every day.
Without a doubt, The Favourite is not the biopic one is accustomed to, its black sheep take on nonfiction storytelling vaulting it into a historical drama stratosphere all its own. The mischievous flavors here are simply divine; the writing a creation of snappy sardonic poison; the acting absolute perfection down the board; the technical elements (sets, costumes, score, production design, etc.) a collision of awe-inspiring brilliance. As its characters outmaneuver and game each other, the film builds its hand, amounting to nothing less than a winning royal flush.
CONCLUSION: Let them eat cake, ‘The Favourite’ declares, offering a sickly sweet delight decorated with a quartet of brilliant performances (Stone, Weisz, Colman, Hoult) that teether this satirical slice of historical fiction to a sense of skewed, psychosexual royal quirk. A real wonder to look at, this deliriously spellbinding costume drama is one that only the perplexing Yorgos Lanthimos could construct. Stunning.