I saw Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Favourite” (2018) when it was in cinemas back in December, and then I watched it a second time when it played in the Warch Campus Center Cinema the other week. It is a film that only grows in richness and in depth upon repeat viewings.
The narrative follows the reign of Queen Anne in 18th century England when the country is at war with France. The war is more of a historical backdrop for the very human comedy that unfolds over the course of the film’s two hours. We follow Anne and her dysfunctional relationship with Lady Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough. Sarah is brilliantly played by Rachel Weisz, while Olivia Colman turns in a deservedly Oscar winning performance as the feeble yet imposing Queen Anne. Colman lets the audience be witness to some of film’s more grotesque instances of physical comedy. We see her gout being treated and also her vomiting up cake that she is forcing herself to eat. Lady Sarah is the one who really runs the country. Given the queen’s fragile state of mind, Sarah influences all the queen’s decisions regarding the war and matters of state. Abigail, Sarah’s cousin and a daughter of an aristocrat fallen from grace, enters the film played by the formidable Emma Stone, and she quickly works her way from scullery maid to Queen Anne’s “favourite.”
Some might call the film a work of revisionist history, as the plotline about Anne and Sarah’s affair has little to no historic evidence. This is not to say that affairs between women didn’t happen at that time, but how the film uses this affair to insinuate Sarah’s level of influence over the political affairs of the state seems exaggerated. Abigail discovers this affair and seeks to disrupt it so that she may ascend to be the queen’s right hand and bedmate.
What arises is an increasingly perverse duel of wits and control that is as unpredictable as it is fun to watch. The dialogue is delightfully profane, and the actors, particularly Stone, get to deliver some devastatingly funny one-liners. The central trio is stunning and craft a biting chemistry that aids in the creation of a feeling of uncertainty. Viewers never know what is going to happen next. The period detail is exquisite and so is the costume design. Whenever Weisz goes out of the castle to partake in the recreational sporting activities of the day (shooting, horseback riding), she wears a getup that makes her look like a cooler version of pirate-mode Keira Knightley in “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
One thinks that the abundant power-plays and double crosses in this film would lead to an ending wherein the audience takes a certain sick pleasure in seeing which of the two “favourites” wins, but as the film enters its final chapter (the film is divided into seven chapters), it becomes increasingly clear that this is a game that no one can win. What starts out as a fun, if dark and twisted, romp through 1700s English royalty reveals itself to be, in the end, an incredibly sad film.