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Queen Anne’s embrace - ‘The Favourite’

January 7, 2019
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One of the joys of awards season is the opportunity to not just see excellent films, but to see films that are excellent in ways that you hadn’t anticipated.

Take “The Favourite,” for instance. It’s a period piece set in the court of England’s Queen Anne in the early 18th century; it tells the story of two women battling to curry favor with her. There are phenomenally talented performers in those three leads and excellent actors up and down the roster. Sounds pretty straightforward, no?

But then you learn that the director is noted weirdo auteur Yorgos Lanthimos and that the central conflict has a healthy amount of psychosexual manipulation and a little slapstick anachronism to accompany the palace intrigue and things are DEFINITELY not straightforward anymore. Excellent, for sure, but not straightforward.

“The Favourite” is an odd amalgamation, a sex farce in costume drama’s clothing … and it works wonderfully. It is sumptuously filmed and audaciously performed, an utterly fearless and unapologetically strange film. It is a cracked-mirror Merchant-Ivory production, a great piece of cinema that arrives at that greatness via paths both conventional and surprising.

The year is 1708. England is at war with France. The ailing Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, “Murder on the Orient Express”) is more interested in courtly diversions than matters of state, having handed over control of most affairs to her friend and confidante Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz, “The Mercy”), the Duchess of Marlborough. It is Lady Sarah who deals with envoys from Parliament, including the loyal Godolphin (James Smith, “Carnage”) and opposition leader and landowner Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult, “The Current War”).

Lady Sarah’s life takes an unexpected turn with the arrival of her cousin Abigail (Emma Stone, TV’s “Maniac”). Abigail’s family has fallen on hard times due to a series of unfortunate circumstances ranging from her father’s gambling problem to a tragic fire. She has come to court seeking help; Lady Sarah gives her a job as a scullery maid. But when Abigail, in an effort to curry favor, takes it upon herself to procure herbs to help ease the pain of the Queen’s gout, Lady Sarah decides to promote her. Abigail becomes a lady-in-waiting, a much more prestigious position.

Things quickly grow complicated. Abigail makes a discovery with regards to Lady Sarah’s relationship with the Queen that grants her an avenue toward regaining her lost nobility – an avenue that she is more than ambitious enough to take. Meanwhile, Harley makes efforts to turn Abigail to his side, going from stick to carrot depending upon which way the wind is blowing.

As Lady Sarah devotes her time to dealing with the war and other concerns, Abigail begins building her own relationship with Queen Anne – one that may allow her to undermine her cousin and assume a place of power of her own. However, Lady Sarah is no stranger to palace politics and is unafraid to use her own tactics to maintain her position.

“The Favourite” is a subversion of the prestige picture formula, a devotion of tremendous filmmaking talent to the creation of something challenging and weird. This movie manages to be darkly funny and tragically heartbreaking in the same breath, all while in a skewed, shadowy landscape of the vaguely surreal.

Too often, movies like this one can get overly entangled in the bonds of veracity, worrying too much about historical accuracy. Trust me when I say that that is not a problem here. Anachronisms large and small abound, from language to dress to tone. Credit that to the sensibility of Yorgos Lanthimos, whose filmography is rife with strange and powerful work. When a period piece about an all-female political-sexual power struggle is the most conventional movie you’ve made, you’re clearly in a class of your own. He might be the closest thing to a mainstream-adjacent weirdo like David Lynch among his generation of filmmakers.

There’s a real beauty to the aesthetic. Lanthimos shoots in such a way to allow the eye to drink in the intricate detail of his settings, massive great rooms and long darkened hallways. Candlelight is weaponized. Fish-eye lenses and other camera tricks are deployed with impunity; visual quirks abound, all in service to moving the storytelling forward.

And then there’s the cast. Holy hell, the cast. It has been some time since we saw a film that featured three female lead performances this tremendous. Colman is marvelous as Queen Anne, vacillating between helplessness and imperiousness with ease. She pouts and proclaims, whining and demanding. Laughter and tears are interchangeable. Weisz is a marvel as Lady Sarah, capturing the subtle machinations of Lady Sarah’s manipulations with a delightful nuance. She manages to maintain surface stillness while also allowing brief glimpses of what bubbles beneath. And Stone imbues Abigail with an ambition that is unapologetic in its nakedness. Playing that kind of ruthlessness with honesty is difficult, but she handles it with aplomb; the underlying nastiness she brings to the table is a surprise. The rest of the ensemble – Hoult, Smith, Mark Gattis and Joe Alwyn foremost among them – is very good, but this movie is all about the trio at the top.

Honestly, I’ve never seen anything quite like “The Favourite.” And that’s a good thing. No – a GREAT thing. It is smart and ambitious, much like the two women battling at its center, the sort of film that is willing to do whatever it takes to becomes the best version of itself. And considering how it appears poised to be received this awards season, its title is an apt one.

[5 out of 5]

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