Film Review – The Favourite
I have never watched a trailer for one of Yorgos Lanthimos’ movies and been like, “I wanna watch that!” I just now read the synopsis for Dogtooth on Wikipedia and just thought “Ew.” I feel pretty adventurous with my movie tastes, but I will admit to generally finding absurdist satire frustrating rather that invigorating. (Or even funny.) I hated the trailer for The Favourite, but when it came up for review, I decided to bite the bullet and confront my prejudice head on. I am delighted to report that not only did I love this movie, it might be my favorite of the year. Will I go back and watch Lanthimos’ other films? Well, there are a lot of other movies in the world. We’ll see. But I’ll definitely be paying closer attention to him from now on. (Is it weird for a film reviewer to admit they don’t want to watch certain stuff? Kind of. But almost all of us feel that way about some category of movies. I don’t review enough films that I have to watch everything that comes out, and I’m fine with that. I have enough grounding in film history to be able to talk about movies competently, and some stuff is just not for me.)
The Favourite tells the story of Queen Anne of England (1665 – 1714), her friend and advisor Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s distant cousin Abigail (Emma Stone.) Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is petulant, intellectually dull, suffering from gout, and grieving over the deaths of her seventeen children. Sarah has been her confidant since she came to Anne’s defense in childhood and pretty much makes most of the major decisions for her queen. She appears to genuinely care for Anne, but does not hesitate to further her agenda for England, including prolonging the war against France. This sets Sarah against Speaker of the House of Commons Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) who wishes to end the war and its ever-increasing taxes on the landowners. Lady Sarah’s complacency in her position is challenged by her cousin Abigail – who shows up muddy, destitute, and desirous of a position. Starting out in the kitchens, Abigail works her way into the bedchamber of the queen, feeds information to Harley, and attempts to usurp her cousin’s place in Anne’s life.
Does this sound like a stuffy historical drama about the political machinations of people long dead and forgotten? It does, but it is absolutely a delight from start to finish. What no synopsis of this film can communicate is how funny it is and how humanely it treats its characters. Lanthimos’ absurdist tendencies are present – the dancing scenes are hilarious – but they are tempered with a humor that hits directly at the foibles and frustrations of the three main characters and the world they live in. It is also hard not to see Trump in Queen Anne’s temper tantrums and reliance on advisors with competing agendas. (It should be noted that while this film began life before the 2016 election, it did not start shooting until 2017.) The dissipation and decadence of the upper classes is on full display, which may or may not have resonance for the viewer depending on their feelings about today’s ruling elites.
But what really makes this film exceptional is how it treats the three main characters. Queen Anne appears both stupid and capricious, but it is clear she is also heartbroken and desperate for emotional connection. She is probably not particularly bright to begin with, but lives a rarified existence where most every whim is indulged, and she is in no way forced to learn to make better decisions. Lady Sarah is willing to put duty before almost anything else, and even though her desire to prolong the war angers many, she believes it is the right course of action. While she does control her queen, she never lies to her and does attempt to bring out the better angels in Anne’s nature. Even Abigail, whose presence throws a wrench in Sarah’s existence, is acting mostly out of self-preservation. Unless she secures a powerful position for herself, she will be completely at the mercy of the kindness of others. And since her father bet (and lost) her in a game of chance many years ago, she hasn’t seen much of that. Who can truly fault her for trying to control her own future?
Even if you don’t care a whit for the story and just sat in front of the screen looking at the costumes, you’d be in for a treat. Everything here is done well. The set decoration is beautiful, and the actors all deliver great performances. The Favourite recently took ten British independent film awards and deservedly so. It is a finely crafted, smartly written kind of film that we don’t get very much anymore, and if you are even vaguely interested in it, you should go; it’s very much the kind of thing that shines in the theater. I can’t wait to see it again.