Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone excel in Yorgos Lanthimos’s unique period piece
Yorgos Lanthimos has proven himself to have a distinct vision, to be an acquired taste even. With films such as Dogtooth, The Lobster, and Killing of a Sacred Deer, he has explored dark ideas with a delectably droll and absurdist bent. It’s pretty remarkable then that it’s a period drama (of sorts) that heralds a greater embrace of his work, to the extent that The Favourite not only garnered critical and public praise, but also 10 Academy Award nominations. It’s more accessible, perhaps, but without compromising any of the filmmaker’s sensibilities. A truly majestic affair with a black sense of humor and a deeply tragic core, realized by three of the best performances of the year from Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone.
18th Century England, where the Monarch, Queen Anne (Colman), is suffering from ill health, both mentally and physically. Her well-being and the running of the country fall in the lap of her close friend and confidant Lady Sarah Marlborough (Weisz), who liaises between her Majesty and the Government, but seems to have an agenda of her own. Enter Abigail (Stone), a distant relative of Lady Sarah who has fallen on hard times, and is now seeking employment in the royal household. Beginning as a maid, she shows some initiative, and is eventually is taken under the tutelage of Marlborough. She comes into her own as she finds ways to elevate her own station, and reduce that of others. So begins a battle of wits, each vying for the affections of the Queen and the power that comes with it, determined to become her favourite.
Despite the stuffy airs of an 18th century period dramedy, The Favourite has a breezy feel, aided by its quick lines and assured cast. The film moves quickly to set up the dynamics, and the stakes. England is currently engaged in war with France, a conflict that has divided Her Majesty’s Government, and one that proponent Lady Sarah is ‘managing’ the Queen to support. But this is a backdrop to the film’s real focus, the maneuvering between Sarah and the interloper Abigail. As this maid ingratiates herself to the Queen, so does she threaten Sarah’s ability to steer the country, and maintain her position. As Abigail rises through the ranks, she gets a taste for it, and wants more, determined to reclaim her status, lost after a failed marriage. Amidst all this is Queen Anne herself, a fragile creature who needs to be maintained as a figurehead, her eccentricities humored, and her commands obeyed.
Losing her faculties, subject to wild mood swings, gout, and other ailments, she is subject to political pressure and palace intrigue, while dealing with her own personal pain. She’s pulled back and forth between these two women, each offering affection and comfort, each equipped with their own agenda. Sarah has clearly carried her burden for a long time, and her patience has grown short, even if her love for her ward, and her country, remains. He cousin Abigail is a fresh face, one more flattering, a sugar coated alternative. While Sarah honestly tells the Queen when a makeup job makes her look like a badger, Abigail can only offer platitudes. The situation becomes akin to a child with two parents, one who offers vegetables for their well-being, whilst the other offers chocolate. It’s a fascinating power play as they try to out maneuver each other and shift tactics as the dynamics change in the royal household.
The trio that lead this film are pitch perfect. Weisz brings a cool, calculated reserve. Cutthroat, but with an occasional betrayal of tenderness. Stone is given a greater range of roles, from the doe-eyed soul, to the girl who realizes the power of her words and body, to the one who realizes that her efforts to avoid going into prostitution have essentially led her to the same place. And then there’s Colman, whose work here finally tops my previous favorite performance of hers and was rightly coronated as best actress at the recent Academy Awards. She gives so many layers and depth to a character that could have been one note. Eccentric, endearing, frustrated, deeply melancholic. It’s a role deeply infused with pathos, notably in a heart-wrenching scene where the meaning of her collection of rabbits becomes apparent.
The Favourite ‘feels’ mainstream, but lacks little of the edge that came with Lanthimos’s preceding work. It’s a shift that was no doubt aided by his working from a script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, rather than his own hand. The most noticeable change is his dispensing with the monotone deliveries coaxed from his cast, replaced here by the stuffy airs and graces of an 18th century royal court. Florid language and weird turns of phrase allow him to alter his approach, rather than compromising it entirely. A period setting, beautifully intricate costumes, set design, ceremony, and debauchery contribute to the absurdist tilt. While Lanthimos has often crafted films that feel emotionally detached, they are always rooted in aspects of humanity, relationships, society, and power. The Favourite is no different, but it does show a refinement to his approach. One I applaud for its success in drawing more people into his unique take on filmmaking.
The Favourite embraces an authentic depiction of the 18th century, given further authenticity through the use of plenty of natural light. The transfer here shows off the film wonderfully. A natural palette, with solid blacks. Lanthimos deploys wide angle shots throughout and the Blu-ray helps show much of the detail packed in there. The extra features are a little lacking, which seems to be more common with ‘new’ releases these days sadly. A commentary, particularly one featuring the three leads would have been most welcome.
- Deleted Scenes: Nearly 3 minutes, they add little and no context is given for their excision
- The Favourite — Unstitching the Costume Drama: Good length at 22 minutes, but lacks any real meat
- Theatrical Trailer
- DVD and Digital HD Copy of the Film
The Bottom Line
The Favourite is undoubtedly one of the best films of 2018. A costume drama, as viewed through Lanthimos’s off-kilter lens to give it a wickedly dark streak of humor, smarts, and tragedy. This is a release that should mark celebrations of the film winning best picture; instead we were left with a travesty. But we can still marvel in this magnificent trio of women and the work of Lanthimos, as well as the abilities of Horatio, the fastest duck in the city.
The Favourite is available on Blu-ray from March 5th, 2019.