“We breed wars,” Eleanor of Aquitaine says in The Lion in Winter. “We carry it like syphilis inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten.” The Favourite depicts a world of war, high taxes, and pervasive poverty, all while an absentminded queen sits dazed on the throne. This movie’s most surprising trait is how it depicts tragedy and palace intrigue with an engagingly bizarre sense of humor. The Favourite takes us into a bawdy world of rotten patricians who plot and plan and sleep their way to the top of a pyramid of power.
It’s 1708, and Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) rules over England like a hapless, barking dilettante. She has little use for councils of war or levying taxes on shivering peasants. Instead, she hosts loony spectacles like lobster races and tends to her 18 pet rabbits. Anne spends much of this time with Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who acts as both confidante and handler. Witheringly acerbic, Sarah fires hateful remarks at subordinates like poison darts. Sarah’s world shakes to the core when her grubby cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) slowly wriggles into the Queen’s confidence. Abigail erects a warm and genial facade to hide the savvy Machiavellian beneath. Sarah and Abigail engage in a vicious power struggle over who gets to be the Iago in Anne’s ear.
If The Favourite derives much of its comedy from a sharp and snarky script, then much of the dramatic heft here comes from the trio of lead performers. Colman delivers a stunning turn as the unhinged, insecure Anne. Weisz delivers her dialogue with the ruthless joy of a woman in love with her own villainy. The film’s most difficult role falls to Stone, and she pulls it off brilliantly. Her Abigail must play a range of roles, from flirtatious vixen to vulnerable peasant girl. These three actresses find tremendous chemistry with each other and keep an intricate story ceaselessly watchable,
A gorgeous film, The Favourite brims with sumptuous imagery and meticulous attention to detail. Director Yorgos Lanthimos takes what could have been a glorified stage play and renders it cinematic with striking exterior shots and clever camera angles as characters maneuver through the Byzantine tangle of palace rooms and hallways. Classical music is deployed throughout the film in a way that is never intrusive.
The Favourite is the kind of movie that builds its tension with corridor whispers and characters who say a lot by saying nothing. It finds a way to be broadly funny and dramatically nuanced at the same time. It’s raunchy and yet sophisticated. The aristocratic characters depicted here could be remote and unlikable, but actors are so good that we completely invest in them. This is an intelligent, engrossing film, and one of the year’s best.