Review: The Favourite

17 December 2018

Partway through Yorgos Lanthimos’ superb and vicious period drama-comedy The Favourite, a character remarks that she feels her life like “a maze [she] continually thinks [she’s] gotten out of only to find another corner right in front of [her].” Much the same could be said about The Favourite—its complex, acerbic and violently funny narrative thrills the viewer and haunts them in equal measure, leaving them deeply unsettled and not nearly escaped from Lanthimos’ wiles.

Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) sits on the British throne, ailing from gout and being aided in her rule—or perhaps controlled—by her right-hand woman, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Sarah’s Whig instincts lead Anne to continue pressing forward in war against the French, against the wishes of the Tory leader of the opposition (Nicholas Hoult), at ever-increasing cost and risk of life lost. This already delicate situation is further disturbed by the arrival of Sarah’s cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), who—after her fall from nobility some years prior—comes to Anne’s court looking for work. Sarah, having “a thing for the weak,” brings her on as a maid. But Abigail is not a fool, and begins to conspire, seeking prestige, power and Anne’s favour most of all—no matter the cost.

The screenplay (not by Lanthimos himself, but by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara) is wicked and sharp-tongued—very different from what might otherwise be expected of a period costume drama. The comedy is strong but tinged with tragic undertones that lend a complexity to the proceedings on screen. The plotting itself is sharp, and the film never loses the audience while diving into its own delightful absurdity. That absurdity is one of this film’s great strengths, and Lanthimos deploys it well, with fish-eye lenses and low angles (cinematography by Robbie Ryan) keeping the audience submerged in The Favourite’s strange, almost claustrophobic atmosphere.

The real shining gems of the film, however, are the indelible performances of the three women at its core. Rachel Weisz is deadly and unbreakable as Sarah, with contradictory impulses of ruthlessness and earnestness constantly coming through. At times, Sarah exerts considerable control over Anne, but there is never any doubt that she cares for the monarch—when she declares that “[she] will not lie; that is love,” we believe her, as the pain beneath her exterior shines through. Weisz is simply superb every moment she’s on screen.

Emma Stone is similarly phenomenal as Abigail—an even greater achievement than her Oscar-winning turn in La La Land, with the audience at once rooting for her and loathing her with each new step. Her depiction of Abigail’s journey through The Favourite is stunning to behold.

But it is Olivia Colman who must be recognised above all. In someone else’s hands, Anne could have been just a pitiful figure, but Colman finds incredible depth to a monarch that is at once wounded, proud, regal and distraught. She cuts an impossibly alone and desperate figure, one that breaks the heart. The Favourite is in awards season discussions, and so is Colman—it would be a travesty for her to miss a nomination for this.

Lanthimos here creates a film that endures, with the viewer constantly torn between mad enjoyment and terror, and it sticks in the mind long after the final minutes play. After that final scene, The Favourite’s impact grows and shifts on you, and you realise that indeed, what we have here is a maze we thought we had finally escaped—only to find another corner right in front of us. And thank god.

The Favourite is in cinemas from December 26.

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