From director Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite picks up in the midst of the reign of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). The film depicts the relationship between the Queen and her confidante, Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), as the former’s health is beginning to fail, and Britain remains locked in war with France: something upon which the Queen finds herself subject to endless lobbying from Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), an MP and landowner responsible for raising the taxes necessary to fund the campaign. Into this environment comes Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah’s cousin, and a former noblewoman, ruined by her father’s gambling. Starting as merely a hired kitchen hand, Abigail becomes an unlikely challenger to Sarah for the Queen’s affection.
It is no surprise to find The Favourite starting to gain traction in the acting categories for this year’s awards season. Underpinning this film is a trio of acting performances as strong as anything we are likely to see this year. At the recent Golden Globes, Olivia Colman took the Best Actress Award (for musical or comedy), with both Weisz and Stone nominated in the Supporting Actress equivalent. The contrasts and complements of these performances elevate an already fine piece of work, and the line between supporting and leading has never been thinner: this film has three leads, to all intents and purposes.
Colman portrays Queen Anne as surprisingly complex. When we first meet her, it appears as though we are about to see a one-dimensional, childish, spoiled temper-tantrum of a character – a slightly dialled down version of Queenie from Blackadder II, for example. Though there is a deeply child-like element to the character, the script is nuanced enough to present possible reasons for this: Anne lost all 17 of her children in childbirth or early childhood. The wish to regress to a world of play and self-indulgence (most notably with food) is all the more understandable against this backdrop. Anne spends much of the film in her bedroom playing with the rabbits that we come to learn represent each of her lost children. When forced to make serious decisions, she leans heavily on Sarah. Colman is terrific in depicting an outward playfulness (and spitefulness, at times), and inner pain – exacerbated by the serious physical pain from gout and digestive problems.
For at least half of the film The Favourite belongs very much to Rachel Weisz. She portrays the Duchess of Marlborough with such ambiguity that we are never quite clear whether the character is acting in the best interests of Queen and Country, or whether she represents a more presentable version of Grima Wormtongue from The Lord of the Rings – a malevolent influence poisoning the Monarch’s mind. Unpicking this intrigue is one of the great joys of the time spent with this film. Sarah is both feminine and unbreakably strong, and Weisz clearly is having the time of her life reciting the extremely spicy and often downright sexually crude dialogue.
The third of our triptych is Emma Stone. This is a career high for an already very accomplished performer. Abigail is portrayed with an even greater degree of nuance and ambiguity than Sarah. On first inspection, the character, although robust, is sentimental, quick to tears, and determined to see the good in people; as she progresses, the layers of deception pile up quickly, as do the delicious contradictions in the differing ways she approaches various situations. The three actresses are playing very different people, with differing agendas, and they all share wonderful on-screen chemistry – in any combination.
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Supporting players all got the same memo. Nicholas Hoult, in particular, has never been better: playing the edges of comedy, whilst injecting his role with a screen-grabbing cruelty. These performances are all encouraged by an outstanding script from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. The dialogue is uniformly snappy, sharp, funny, and fully embracing of the strongest of language. Director and cast have committed fully to giving that dialogue life. The story is full of machinations and double crosses, but not to a degree that is self-consciously trying to look too clever: this is not M Night Shyamalan, the period drama. It is never looking to stay one step ahead of the audience in any regard, except for the aforementioned ambiguity around character motivations.
If The Favourite has a weakness, it is in a lack of directorial flair, punctuated by occasional stabs at something resembling flair, which really doesn’t work. Whilst such things can be overdone, there appears to be a lack of any filters being used at all. Meaning that apart from some of the candlelit scenes (which do look beautiful, by-and-large), the film has a flat, almost washed out quality.
For large parts of the film, Stone is portraying a below-stairs character and, as such, is not wearing any make-up at all. Whilst the correct decision from a storytelling perspective, combined with a lack of filters, this makes her skin look almost bleached under studio lighting. For large sections, this could have been a BBC Costume Drama, albeit with a prestige cast unlikely to be replicated on television.
There is also a pervasive use of fish-eye lenses in many of the corridor sequences (amongst others). Whilst the director will have a rationale for this, and how he may have tied it to themes he wanted to accentuate, on this viewing that rationale was not at all clear; its use seemed random, in terms of the types of scenes in which it was being employed.
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Other design decisions are more successful. Set design is lavish, yet remains cold and distancing at the same time – accentuating a loneliness at court, but bringing the environment to life as a working, lived-in house. Music is used sparingly and effectively, underpinning changes in mood and tone very well. Costume and make-up design is equally understated and well employed.
For all the qualities of The Favourite, it is a film that will be remembered more for its central performances. That those exceptional performances are in service of such a strong script and story is a wonderful bonus.