By Alan Hurst
I’m still making my way through all of this year’s Best Picture nominees, but I’m not sure I’ll find one as perversely enjoyable as Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite. I was intrigued when I saw the trailer last fall but seeing it in theatres in December I wasn’t prepared for how wildly entertaining, funny and enjoyably nasty the film was going to be.
The Favourite is based, at least in part, on a real-life incident. In 1711, Queen Anne of England appointed a former chambermaid (Abigail Hill) to be Keeper Privy Purse at the expense of Sarah Churchill, who until Abigail came along was one of the Queen’s trusted advisors. Screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara take this incident and apply all sorts of logical conjecture to flesh the story out – much like any dramatist does with bits of history involving the British Royal family. The result is a cynical, witty and wildly over-the-top Restoration Mean Girls, but much smarter and more incisive.
Lanthimos is a fascinating director, able to easily mix both humour and vile behaviour, as he did with The Lobster (2015) and, to a certain extent, The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). He has an off-kilter way of looking – and filming – everything that gives his films a quirky energy. And even though The Favourite is probably his most accessible film, nothing about it feels mainstream or expected.
Leading the cast are three very different actresses, each delivering a fierce, very individual performance.
The breakout star for me is Olivia Colman, a British actress who made an impact with North American audiences with the 2013-17 series Broadchurch. She’ll no doubt be making an even bigger impact when she assumes the role of Queen Elizabeth in the Netflix hit The Crown when season three starts later this year. In The Favourite she plays Queen Anne, the central figure in the bizarre female triangle. This Queen is damaged goods – widowed, childless (after conceiving 17 times), insecure, and suffering from horrible bouts of gout. As Colman plays her, she’s almost childlike in her need for approval and with her spurts of screeching anger and jealousy. Colman is both funny and touching – but still shows that steely thread of royal privilege that comes with the job. As the story progresses you’re not really sure who is in charge, but by the end it’s clear.
Emma Stone plays Abigail, the once secure but now desperate cousin of Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) who comes to the Queen’s court looking for a job. Abigail endures all manners of abuse and humiliation, but ultimately finds a way to befriend – and bed – the Queen, usurping the power that Sarah once held. Stone is excellent as the sweet, but secretly manipulative Abigail. At first you feel sorry for her, but by the end you marvel at her viciousness and determination.
Rachel Weisz is also very good as Sarah, who initially appears to be running the Queen and the Queen’s court quite effortlessly. Her character’s journey is a little different than Abigail’s, moving from tough as nails and high powered to a somewhat more sympathetic, defeated place away from the sphere of influence.
I think what I found most fascinating about all three of these characters is how contemporary they feel, but still very part of the 18th century. For me each of these actresses’ performances are so on target and eerily reminiscent of some individuals I had the displeasure of working with at one point in my career (but that’s another story that at least has a happy ending).
All three are nominated for Oscars. I’m not sure how it was determined that Colman is lead and Stone and Weisz are supporting, since each role is of equal size and importance, but I’m glad there’s room for all of them.
Visually the film is a treat (with nominations for production design, costumes and cinematography) and the mood Lanthimos’ is trying to provoke is aided immeasurably by the eerie, almost atonal score by Johnnie Burn
I don’t think The Favourite will win Best Picture (right now I think it’s going to go to Roma), but it certainly deserves its place on the final ballot.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.