Written by: Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara
Starring: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, James Smith
Love comes in all shapes and forms, sometimes a soft touch and in others with a sharp spike. Nonetheless, it exists and comes down to the individual on the receiving end to distinguish which one to harbor and more importantly, what they are willing to accept. This presents the central current running through the eviscerating and pungent script along with the deceptive performances of The Favourite. Tremendous in every facet and presents Regency England in a way never properly displayed before.
While still at war with France, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) lacks interest in continuing but gets persuaded to proceed by her confidant Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz). With the arrival of Lady Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), the newcomer decides to mess around in this system and curry favor with the queen as it becomes discovered the royal majesty has interests in the love of women.
Serving as both his best and most accessible feature, Yorgos Lanthimos truly dials it up with this ambitious and heavily stylish feature based on real people during this era. Channeling the same weirdness of his other features but turned down just a bit, The Favourite brings it all together to create something so biting thanks to the wonderfully clever script provided. Filled with moments meant to make you gasp and with good reason, the characters shown in this feature display the people of this era but without the pompous attitudes one would typically associate with them. Instead, it shows what gets said behind closed doors and the power players trying to navigate their way to power and safety.
The film opens with Queen Anne presenting the schematics of a palace she will have built for Lady Sarah because of their friendship to which the non-royal reminds the queen the country is still at war. To see the shock on Anne’s face to realize this tells you everything you need to know for what this ride will be narratively. The Favourite captures how a bubble can form around these privileged individuals to the point where they cannot fathom the conditions of the people they oversee but they will surely argue about it. Lady Sarah insists England must continue to fight on while the opposition party led by Harley (Nicholas Hoult) insists this has all been taxing enough to the people and they should sue for peace. This constant tug-of-war underlies the entire story and sets up where the alliances stand in order to convince Queen Anne. It all becomes a game for these power brokers and for all the conversation about it being good for the people, the camera never pans out to show the average person in their towns and exactly how they feel about the war. No, it stays with these people in powdery wigs as they live their lavish lifestyles. The only “normal” person the story has to offer enters the palace and shows these elite are not the only ones who can play this game.
With Abigail entering the story, it raises the emotional stakes to an incredibly high degree and all bets are off as to how this story will end. Coming into this gargantuan palace hoping her cousin, Lady Sarah, can provide her work, she quickly learns what it means to have power and how emotions can be manipulated in order to be the favorite. Through Abigail’s character, we discover the extent of the relationship of Lady Sarah and Queen Anne, which falls into the sexual. This provides the opportunity for her to strike and sets off this triangle of manipulation with someone simply looking for love right in the middle of it all.
Each of these three women can be examined for their complexities, as they each carry such fascinating threads connecting each of them as they carry similar but different ambitions. As conniving as Lady Sarah and Abigail prove to be, the center of it all remains Queen Anne. At times she feels like the passenger in this story, as she goes along with the levels of affection the two other women provide to her, but she holds all of the cards. Going through some terrible physical ailments like gout, Anne simply wants to be cared for by another person with Lady Sarah and Abigail providing two different forms of it. Lady Sarah provides the love where she will tell Anne when she looks ridiculous or is doing something wrong while Abigail gives into every pleasure and rarely questions her. One person comes with light requests while the other provides harsh recommendations. It comes down to Anne as to what type of love she wants to receive and it becomes difficult to judge her for the decision she ultimately makes.
It takes a strong actor to properly navigate a character like Anne and Olivia Colman knocks it out of the park with the proper balance of brattiness and longing for love. She handles the comedic moments of this character in stride and makes the case for why the audience should feel bad for her even when considering she holds all of the power as the queen. To have all of this potential power and falling to the whims of the two other women around her makes the monarch the victim somehow and it works well in the story.
The dynamic duo of Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz pour gasoline into the fire of this rivalry. They both perfectly portray the ridiculousness of these characters along with portraying the bleak reality of the options women have within this society. Abigail needs to navigate the world around her to avoid living life as a maid or in a brothel. Winning favor of the queen comes from a survival instinct whereas Lady Sarah has become drunk with power with the influence she has over Anne. She can be loving towards the queen when necessary but will eviscerate anyone she feels has stepped out of line. Their bout of the whits in the feature makes for such an entertaining ride and the two actors shine brightly within these roles.
Gloriously stylish in the production design in showing the vast opulence these characters live in, adding in Lanthimos’s use of fish-eye lenses makes this such an invigorating look at life in the monarchy. It goes in directions I did not expect and truly captivates with the lengths it’s willing to trek with this era. The screenplay proves to be such a treat to experience and becomes the impeccable foundation for the rest of the talent to display what has made them household names.