By John H. Foote
If you tossed All About Eve (1950), Dangerous Liasons (1988), The Madness Of King George (1994) and Mean Girls (2003) in a blender, took their best aspects and highlighted them for said blending, you might end up with a film such as the giddy, poisonous work that is The Favourite. The film is everything a period piece is not, which makes it great good fun and absolutely unexpected in every way.
With its delicious exploration of toxic, vicious women in competition, a wild sex triangle, the film is among the best of the year, containing three superb performances from its women, a rarity in movies to find three female performances this good, awards-good, in a single movie. Director Yorgos Lanthimos has finally made a film that audiences will embrace, a film that will have audiences and critics giggling with delight at its inherent nastiness. Last year he demonstrated his patience in allowing the narrative to unfold in the dread-filled and scary The Killing Of a Sacred Deer (2017), an alarming film about vengeance wreaked on a wealthy Doctor and his innocent family. That film was filled with a sense of terrible foreboding, a sense of dread that we knew something terrible was going to happen. Filled with brilliant performances it was among the most underappreciated films of last year.
The Favourite will most certainly not be ignored, it is far too good, has mainstream appeal and a trio of magnificent actresses doing outstanding work, in roles not like anything we have before witnessed, especially Oscar winner Emma Stone as conniving, hateful and wicked as she has ever been.
Set in the 18th-century court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) has risen high in the court to become a trusted advisor of the dotty Queen. It is quite well known that the Queen is, um, cuckoo for cocoa puffs crazy, and totally unfit to rule, but she does know that, nor think so. This Queen is a handful for her staff because she is a busy lady, full of energy, and completely bonkers. Into their lives arrives Abigail (Emma Stone) a broke lady who watched her father gamble away their fortune, even trying to sell her into servitude. She is quite literally tossed into manure from a wagon, a most unceremonious arrival to the castle and court. Lady Sarah takes pity on the near waif and gives her a job as a maid in the castle.
Little does anyone know, Abigail is not what she seems. She is whip-smart, scheming, and hellbent on improving her station in life at the cost of anyone. So great is her quest for something better, she will do anything, any vile thing to get ahead. The closer she gets to the Queen, the more upset Lady Sarah becomes, and there is no stopping her.
Like All About Eve (1950) dealt with toxicity being introduced into a world and watching it spread, so is this film in dealing with a poison unleashed. Emma Stone is darkly brilliant as Abigail, the character perhaps suggested by the evil Salem child in The Crucible, Abigail Williams. Absolute in her confidence to move ahead, she ends up sharing the bed of the Queen, showing nothing but contempt for the poor soul she marries for position, displaying her disgust for him at every chance. Stone, already an Oscar-winner, is superb here, arguably the finest work of her career. Her beauty and bright eyes hide the fact she is a viper, a poison unleashed.
Olivia Colman is a revelation as Queen Anne, suffering from gout, mental illness, her body racked with as much trouble as her addled mind. Her mind is always going, we see that, but we never know where it is going to focus, she is a loon but most likable. As the Queen, she is blessed with the right to say whatever she wants to whoever she wants, and she is very aware of what her rights are. What she cannot figure out is whether or not her country is at war. It is a bright, fascinating performance and, once onscreen, we cannot take our eyes off of her.
Weisz is as always outstanding, and she does not let anyone down. Much of her performance is reactionary, watching the Queen, at the beginning her lover, become enamoured with the treacherous Abigail, knowing the maid is dangerous. From there she watches Abigail, never taking her eyes off of her, fascinated yet finding her loathsome.
It has been a long time since a trio of toxicity was so wildly entertaining. Fast-paced, written with bite, that of a shark, and beautifully directed, the film will rack up Oscar nominations….three for acting.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.