AFI Fest Review: ‘The Favourite’ is a Devious Period Piece

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Those in close proximity to power find themselves pulled in closer to the desire to gain a bit of power for themselves. This instinct is even more prominent in states that headed by a fickle, easily manipulated individual. It’s something that’s quite noticeable in American politics today, with various sycophants hungry for power devising various schemes in the media to gain the favor of the fickle, moody narcissist sitting atop the federal government. With his latest effort, director Yorgos Lanthimos takes the audience to a competition among people in close proximity to power with The Favourite, a period piece featuring black humor as the characters scheme for the favor of an unwell monarch. The Favourite depicts a power struggle that is relevant today, but it’s the cast that really brings the film to life helping mitigate some rather unusual stylistic choices that are more distracting than engaging.

In the early 17th century, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is a monarch in decline both physically and mentally. England is the midst of war and the taxes to pay for that war have caused further divisions between the political factions of the Whigs and Tories. At the queen’s side is her loyal friend, confidante, and advisor Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough. Where Queen Anne can be indecisive, Sarah is ruthlessly decisive, employing a crude and razor-sharp wit to prove her point when necessary. Just arriving at the queen’s vast estate to work is Abigail (Emma Stone), a cousin of Sarah’s whose family has had a fall from grace. In a rare moment of empathy, Sarah feels for her fallen cousin and allows her to take the position as her personal maid. When Sarah notices that Abigail is getting closer to the queen, whose health continues to decline, she sets forth to remove the woman from the grounds only to have her request rebuffed by Queen Anne. This sets off a rivalry between the two, one that plays out in their interpersonal relationships with the queen as well as some of the political actors of the era, including the crude and cruel Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult).

All of the people in this period piece are absolutely ruthless, though Queen Anne’s frail state make her more sympathetic than the rest. It’s all devious schemes to undermine one another and gain Queen Anne’s favor, and these take on some rather dastardly twists and turns. There’s no moral compass here, just wretched people thirsty for power and influence. It’s a curious turn in the screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara that at first Abigail is the much more empathetic character before she’s corrupted by the duplicitous nature of everyone surrounding the queen. Then she sheds her empathy and becomes as devious as her cousin and mentor. The Favourite takes some rather bleak turns among its competitive characters, proving that there’s no rock bottom when you’re clawing for influence in the corridors of power.

The power of sexuality is a major factor in The Favourite. One way for Abigail to attain a higher station is life is by the courtship of Samuel Mashem (Joe Alwyn), a man of good standing. Meanwhile, Lanthimos portrays Sarah Churchill as being in a cold, practically loveless marriage to John Churchill (Mark Gatiss), one driven out of necessity more than passion though he’s off leading England’s war effort. However, the heteronormative relationships of The Favourite are the least interesting within the film. The Favourite portrays Queen Anne engaged in secret lesbian affairs with both Sarah and Abigail. I can’t determine the historical accuracy of this portrayal but it does make for some fascinating drama, adding layers to the competition between these two cousins. They’re not just fighting to be in Queen Anne’s ear, but her bed as well.

It’s the cast of The Favourite that keeps the film captivating from beginning to end. Rachel Weisz is reliably solid, showing a darker side as she unleashes a barrage of crude insults on just about everyone. Emma Stone gets a character that goes through a massive transition over the course of two hours, rising from the shit-filled mud to beside the queen’s palace. Nicholas Hoult pops in for scene-stealing moments as a dandy politician dressed to the nines in full make-up, the pink of his blushed cheeks warming the appearance of an icy cold schemer. But the real stand out here is Olivia Colman as the weakened Queen Anne. Colman has always been a brilliant actress but here she’s able to display the full range of her talents. She can be highly comical, heartbreakingly tragic, physically frail, and emotionally wounded all in one astonishing performance.

The Favourite is a devious period work. At times, though, Yorgos Lanthimos makes some rather odd directorial choices, such as his use of extreme wide angle lenses. These odd choice are easily obscured because the film has a lush production design and the actors take the reins of the witty script with its brutal dialogue. Even though this is a period piece about a royal struggle, it’s themes of scheming to gain the favor of a mentally unstable leader still ring true today.

The Favourite
  • Overall Score
3.5

Summary

Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is a devious period piece full of biting dialogue as two cousins compete to win the favor of a physically and mentally unwell monarch.

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  1. Steve Johnson November 18, 2018 Reply

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