****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 4.35 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SEE IT. A very dark, arthouse comedy set in the early 1700’s that speaks to the absurdity of the world in which we live today.
The Favourite, written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, is the story of palace intrigue in early 1700’s England as two cousins, Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hill, conspire to out do one another in an attempt to be the favorite of Queen Anne. The film stars Emma Stone as Abigail, Rachel Weisz and Sarah and Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, with a supporting turns from Nicholas Hoult as Robert Harley.
As I have said repeatedly over the last few weeks, 2018 has been a rather tepid year for cinema, but finally, after the recent ill-exectued visual art house bombast of the highly anticipated At Eternity’s Gate and the messy mainstream misfire of the even more highly anticipated Widows, I have come upon a film worthy of my cinematic attentions and affections. That movie is The Favourite.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos has directed two previous films that I have seen, The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), both of which were exceedingly dark, at times laceratingly funny, uncomfortably insightful and strikingly original. Lanthimos’ ability to make the off-beat and absurd, not just palatable but penetratingly profound, elevated those two movies onto my list of best films of the year.
Thankfully, Lanthimos is up to his old tricks with The Favourite, as he coaxes deliciously powerful performances from his three leading ladies, Stone, Weisz and Colman, all while putting on a master class in verbal sparring, physical comedy and visual storytelling.
The crazy thing about The Favourite is that it made me laugh out loud on occasion due to the absurdity of it all, but it wasn’t until after seeing the movie and reading about the story, that I discovered it is based on a true story…which makes it all the more absurd…and also makes it extraordinarily prescient in regards to our current political moment.
Watching Stone’s Abigail and Weisz’s Sarah jockey for position and using ever more outlandish tactics to get their way in order to have the Queen’s ear, made me think of the pervasive palace intrigue of Trump’s soap opera White House. Sarah and Abigail could be Ivanka and Kellyanne or Jared and John Kelly or Sarah Sanders and The Mooch or any of the myriad of other miscreants who, in an attempt to warm their hands at the hearth of presidential power, have latched themselves onto the mad king currently sitting on the throne.
Speaking of which, Olivia Colman gives a deliriously Trumpian performance as the rabidly insecure, emotionally incontinent, childless and widowed Queen Anne. Queen Anne is blissfully uninformed, ill-informed and disengaged when it comes to politics and governance…sound familiar? Colman’s Queen Anne is, for all intents and purposes, an entitled basket case (again, sound familiar?), so for Sarah and Abigail, manipulating the erratic sovereign takes a deft hand and a decidedly strong stomach.
The Favourite is also relevant not just for political reasons but for cultural ones as well, as Queen Anne’s court and kingdom have a glaring lack, and a desperate need, for traditional masculinity…there are no warriors here, only connivers. The women, such as Sarah and Abigail, are the ones with power, close to power and jockeying for power, while the men, all impotent and effeminate dandies, are little more than pieces on a chess board for the women who rule the roost to manipulate. These “men” are not only emasculated but embrace their emasculation, and are thus reduced to being second rate women as opposed to first rate men, this is evidenced by Nicholas Hoult’s small but truly stellar performance as Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer.
The sex in The Favourite, whether it be in the court of Queen Anne or in a filthy brothel, is, in keeping with the grander theme, entirely transactional. Even when men are involved there is no actual penetration when it comes to consummation, for the fairer sex prefers to keep these perfumed and powdered geldings literally at an arm’s length during carnal interactions. In the female dominated world of The Favourite, the only body part used for penetration is the tongue…and it is very effecteive.
Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan do a masterful job using light and darkness to illuminate the rich sub-text in The Favourite. Ryan’s use of candles is particularly sublime, as he creates a crisp vision of light dancing in a sea of darkness, symbolic of the perils of swimming in the black oceans of power where danger lurks just out of sight and where your humanity, your name and your future can be snuffed out at a moments notice.
Ryan’s framing and Lanthimos’ embrace of animals as sub-text and storytelling devices work hand in hand and are both extremely well done. For instance, Lanthimos’ and Ryan wisely use the symbolically vital seventeen rabbits in Queen Anne’s room as notable backdrops for certain important scenes and although it is very subtle, it is extremely effective.
The performances in The Favourite are stellar across the board. Stone, Weisz and Colman all deserve Oscar nominations for their complex and thoughtful portrayals of what could have been caricatures in lesser hands.
As previously mentioned, Colman is particularly mesmerizing as the petulant Queen who fluctuates between being a tantruming toddler and a vengeful tyrant. Colman gives Queen Anne a remarkable depth, and makes her clownish antics both pained and somehow poignant.
Rachel Weisz is a force to be reckoned with as Sarah, and make no mistake about it, she literally and figuratively wears the pants in Queen Anne’s court. Weisz’s Sarah is the cunning and compelling brains behind the throne. Weisz’s impeccable use of her physicality to convey Sarah’s strength and determination brings a forceful element to the power dynamic of the Anne-Abigail-Sarah narrative.
Where Sarah is vulnerable though, is where Emma Stone’s Abigail strikes. Stone’s Abigail is more feminine than Sarah, but equally vicious when it comes to getting what she wants. Stone’s performance is beguiling as she taps into a darker and more overtly sexual side as Abigail than we have ever seen from her before, and it suits her nicely. Stone’s natural charm makes her Abigail all the more adept at manipulating the Queen and in turn, the audience.
I would argue that The Favourite may be Best Actress Oscar winner Emma Stone’s greatest performance to date. I also think Maria Colman deserves to be nominated and maybe even win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, for her remarkable work as Queen Anne. I wouldn’t be surprised if one or both of Stone and Weisz get nominations as well as they are certainly worthy.
Politically The Favourite teaches us that being a slave to your ambitions ultimately leaves you a slave. I think Jared Kushner, Don Jr., Michael Cohen and the rest of the Trump bootlicking groupies will understand this film more than most as it highlights the degradation, humiliation, inherit myopia and associated dangers involved in doing anything to gain favor with power. As the film and the actual real life events that inspired it show, the long game, if you have the strategic mind, testicular fortitude and vigilant patience for it, is a much more complicated, complex and ultimately rewarding venture than just being a sycophantic ass-kissing lackey.
In conclusion, The Favourite is a dark and delightful treat of an art house film. I believe the film is worthy of your time and energy to see in the theatre in order to enjoy not only Colman, Stone and Weisz’s performances but Robbie Ryan’s exquisite cinematography. I also think it is worth seeing for no other reason than to get a glimpse of what is no doubt the absurdist black comedy playing out behind the scenes right now in the epicenter of buffoonery known as the Trump White House.