“As it turns out, I am capable of much unpleasantness.”
The Monarchy is dying. Well, at the very least, the Monarchy is ill. Suffering from gout, specifically. Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman) booming voice is eternally present in the halls making one demand or another. Even in an otherwise pleasant mood, Queen Anne could snap as she does to a serf for staring at her during a meltdown. “Did you just look at me? Look at me! How dare you?” Using indulgence as a ritual until the tea cakes, duck races, and pineapples run out, the Queen is dependent upon Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) to run her kingdom. Currently, Lady Sarah engages in the politics of war as debt and deaths escalate with Great Britain’s conflict with the French.
Lady Sarah quite enjoys her effective power ruling in the Queen’s stead; her role as Queen Anne’s confidant and erstwhile lover allows her a great deal of leeway. Lady Sarah’s absence in other areas allows for the arrival of her cousin Abigail to create a power struggle. Abigail was herself an aristocrat once, but her father’s gambling has significantly reduced her station. It only takes one day of hard labor (and witnessing a midnight rendezvous) for Abigail to see a way out of her plight: to take up Lady Sarah’s place inside the Queen’s bedroom. “I’ll make a killer of you yet,” the lady offers to Abigail as helpful advice. The glinty stare she receives from her maid suggests that Lady Sarah should reconsider that folly.
The Favourite is directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, but the script is by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, which results in a less nihilistic effort than The Killing of a Sacred Deer or The Lobster. Still, the brutal and bizarre love triangle captured has a certain appeal to tyranny that Yorgos Lanthimos is known for. The Favourite examines the mindset of those who are abused by institutions and their culpability in continually feeding the machine in hopes of eventually sitting atop it. Abigail will stop at nothing to fulfill her own ambitions, but there is a truth to the saying “be careful what you wish for.” Lady Sarah didn’t get to her position by accident. Any change in their power dynamic is only going to come after a bloody brawl.
The triumvirate of actresses dueling for power is the draw for The Favourite. Olivia Colman can intimate so much with just a drop of her jaw or deadening of her eyes. Queen Anne could’ve come off as a one-dimensional caricature, but Colman dials the theatrics back just enough to still see the person inside the mad monarch. Emma Stone plays against type as the ambitious Abigail, who can fluctuate from sweet to malicious in a heartbeat. I was surprised to see Emma Stone’s name attached to The Favourite initially, but, after seeing her in action, Stone’s range is clearly larger than viewers give her credit for. Not to be outdone, Rachel Weisz shines as the well-rounded Lady Sarah. The savvy manipulator is prone to bouts of pettiness, though her confidence allows her to get whatever she wants. Yet, underneath the political maneuvering, you can tell that Sarah does really love Anne. Though this is still a Yorgos Lanthimos film, and even when at his most accessible, he has a way of reminding the audience that cruelty always brings resolute perspective.
Something this nihilistic and darkly comic isn’t often mentioned in the same breath as best picture contenders, but this year The Favourite could manage to do just that. The production design rivals that of even the most exquisite period pieces of recent decades, Sandy Powell’s costuming is perfectly suited to each character. What should really turn heads is the dynamic camerawork present. The camera is often stationary in period pieces, here, it flows from room to room in a state of ecstasy. Lanthimos use of the fish-eye lens is disorienting as the behavior that accompanies it. Even the stilted and pointed dialogue that drives most moviegoers away from Lanthimos’ previous pictures makes perfect sense here. For the vain authoritarian figures who manage others daily, direct and bizarre speeches are the only way to operate. Not every fight is for survival, some, are just for devastation.