Review: In ‘The Favourite,’ Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz battle for adoration

In Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest work, politicians squawk and squabble, insult and chastise, demean and decry. It’s a time of war, but personal status and desire are much bigger priorities than frontline strategy, and a royal palace that increasingly feels populated by childish personalities rarely puts country first.

Lanthimos and Co. probably weren’t expecting or intending for “The Favourite” to have so much in common with the American political hellscape of 2018, but this delightfully deranged retelling of power struggles in 18th-century England makes for eerie and enticing comparison. During an age when it’s become increasingly difficult for satirists to make hyperbolic sense of our world, “The Favourite” –  a period piece “Mean Girls” with layers of complexity – smashes us over the head with (mostly) historically accurate allegory.

Lanthimos, one of our most compelling and unique working directors not yet a household name, is a director whose cinematic environments typically are built on their own rules. His last two films – 2015’s “The Lobster” and last year’s “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” two devilish works in supremely contrasting ways – involve societies with ambiguous systems of operations.

The only thing blatantly clear about their depicting the institutionalization of relationships and the earth-shaking prowess of revenge is that nothing at all is blatantly clear.

With “The Favourite,” however, the setting is much more familiar, even as the story unfolds a few centuries before his other stories. Here, ambiguity doesn’t live in how the world operates, but rather in the motives of those who inhabit it. The result: His most accessibly rewarding and entertaining work to date.

At the center of it are a trio of wickedly magnificent and magnificently wicked performances in Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone—a set of pitch-perfect castings that not only anchor “The Favourite’s” comically lethal attitude.

Colman, a titan of the industry (by resume if not name recognition), is Queen Anne, who in “The Favourite” bears little embodiment of the title. Despite England being at war with France, the more pressing matters for her are constant dawdling and stuffing herself with cake (knowing full well she has a weak stomach), while Weisz’s Lady Sarah handles both her and the political affairs.

It’s an ostensibly straightforward partnership, though from the very first scenes we get the sense both hold more investment than the otherwise blind men who make up the feuding Whig and Tory parties around them realize. Sarah is a close advisor and an even closer friend, and Anne seems to be perfectly content with her running the show so long as she has someone to tend to her and her 17 pet rabbits (no, really) at a moment’s notice.

The pattern is hilarious to behold, even as it hints at mutually-assured sadism; in one scene, Colman’s monarch accepts Sarah’s criticizing her makeup as turning her into a badger in almost dutiful ways. It’s even more incredulous to learn that historical accounts show the bizarre relationship is fairly accurately depicted.

Emma Stone’s eventually arrives as Sarah’s distant and mysterious cousin, Abigail, in search of work and seemingly something to aspire to. When that “something” becomes being the queen’s closest confidante – a role already held and weaponized by Sarah – the status quo is disrupted as a cavernously-shot palace morphs into a chessboard dominated by three women using increasingly volatile methods of staying one step ahead of the other, and the men constantly working to take advantage of them.

Lanthimos approaches filmmaking with playful precision. He’s like a surgeon with how he crafts his stories, but with past efforts the lingua franca of his screenplays have perhaps been too off-putting and inaccessible to a mainstream audience. It isn’t a mistake that “The Favourite” is immediately engrossing by comparison—for the first time, he’s directing a script that wasn’t by his hand.

A joint effort between Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis, this is a screenplay that crackles with wit while constructing a labyrinthine view of relationships, impulse and gratification. In these (gorgeously lit and ravishingly decorated) halls, you don’t have to constantly look over your shoulder so much as be at the ready when the person standing right in front of you trips you into a lake of mud.

I thought back to 2018’s best film, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” more than once while watching “The Favourite,” especially in both films’ insistence that infatuation can be as turbulent and grating as a broken heart. The heart wants what the heart wants, even if that means enduring torment, apparently.

Nicholas Hoult is also dementedly XXXXX as the leader of the Whigs with no regard for others on his rise to power. His elephant-ear sized wig is barely enough to contain his ego, but it’s to our vile delight; he’s just as competitive as the core trio when it comes to one-liners.

Still, there’s little that manages to squeeze itself into the struggle between Sarah, Abigal and Anne. They hold little regard for the men around them, who don’t go out of their way to provide much anyway.

The contrast in priorities between sexes in “The Favourite” isn’t better juxtaposed than in one scene late in the movie, when Lanthimos cuts between one of our core women caught in a potentially deadly situatios and older, white men basking in circus acts in the same rooms where wartime strategy is discussed. It’s absurdly comical, but also a sobering reminder, whether in 1706 or 2018, politics are something the thing furthest from the minds of politicians.

“A man’s dignity is the only thing that holds him back from running amok,” someone utters in “The Favourite.” By that token, there’s no dignity to be had here. Courtship, it increasingly becomes clear, isn’t a motive so much as a means for…it’s never exactly clear. But the ambiguity is enticing, and it makes the finale much more impactful as it revels in despondent glory.

Well-regarded history and movie-born logic have conditioned us to associate settings like that where “The Favourite” unfolds with civility, humility and the moral code of the highest degree. Lanthimos tosses those expectations aside, or better yet, uses them for target practice right on the front lawn. And he’s being fueld by history, no less.

Pettiness isn’t regal, but it reigns here as a trait to aspire to. “The Favourite’s” various conflicts aren’t too far removed resembling middle school squabbles between those who simply can’t help it, and it’s where that feuding gets Queen Anne, Sarah and Abigail that makes this a cautionary tale as much as a hilariously grotesque one.

 

“The Favourite” is rated R for strong sexual content, nudity and language

Starring: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

2018

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