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THE FAVOURITE (2018) review

January 28, 2019

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written by: Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
produced by: Ceci Dempsey, Ed Guiney, Lee Magiday & Yorgos Lanthimos
directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
rated: R (for strong sexual content, nudity and language)
runtime: 120 min.
U.S. release date: November 23, 2018

 

The trio of towering performances at the centre of Yorgos Lanthimos’ comedic period drama are enough to make the film compelling on their own, but it’s the sizzling script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara that elevates The Favourite to one of the year’s best films. This marks Lanthimos’ first foray into directing a script he didn’t also write, and it’s ample proof he can bring his visual and tonal sensibilities to someone else’s ideas. “The Favourite” is, as a result, Lanthimos’ most accessible work, without the social experimentation of films like “Dogtooth” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” but as funny as The Lobster. This film has some of the most effective one-line takedowns I’ve heard in ages.

“The Favourite” reunites Lanthimos with his “The Lobster” collaborator Rachel Weisz, who plays Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, titular favourite to Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), who has fallen on hard times due to her late father’s poor management of his estate, arrives at the palace seeking employ, but comes to rival Sarah’s place as the Queen’s most trusted advisor.

 

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Like any great Shakespearean drama, “The Favourite” is a story of politics and the fate of a kingdom in the hands of fickle leadership—England is at war with France and her ruling parties can’t agree on whether to push the war further or attempt to broker a peace treaty. But it’s also a story of the psychology and relationships that define that leadership. “Everything is about sex except sex; sex is about power,” as they say. But really that means everything is about power and sex. Certainly, that’s the case in “The Favourite”, where the two cousins vie for Anne’s affection and a place of power at her side, but who really holds the power is always ostensibly shifting, not just between Abigail and Sarah but between each of them and Anne as well, in addition to scheming leader of the opposition, Robert Harley (a fantastic Nicholas Hoult channeling Hugh Grant).

Colman is exquisite as Anne, a tempestuous ruler whose eccentricities are endured by her staff but endear her to Sarah. Anne’s forceful personality and status are tempered (or perhaps exacerbated) by her increasingly ill health, making her dependent on Sarah to carry out many of her duties and provide emotional support. Despite the fraught relationships all over “The Favourite”, and the way Sarah uses her position to tip the scales of the political future of the country and her husband, The Duke of Marlborough, in her favour, It’s a film about the idea of love, and what it means in the context of power.

 

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No doubt, Sarah and Anne love each other (whether Abigail does is less clear for some of the time), but what even is love when there is a power differential between the two sides of a pair, especially one that can shift with such urgency and force? Power can be used to protect, but also to destroy (as one particularly memorable and disturbing visual towards the end of the film illustrates). Sarah is blunt to the point of near cruelty with Anne, but under the guise of promising to “never lie” to the Queen—in a world where most of the Queen’s interactions are those of people bending over backwards to curry her favour, maybe brutal honesty is its own form of love.

That “The Favourite” throws historical accuracy out the window—whether Anne and her female companions were engaged in sexual relationships is a matter of debate among historians—to focus on a compelling story of female love, loyalty, and pain, makes it far more interesting and queer a film. The stakes feel high and the motivations of the characters are always understandable even as the characters’ actions are questionable. Harshness, duplicity, and alienation in the name of self-preservation ultimately find all the characters in a form of self-imprisonment, as the film’s psychedelic final shot suggests.

 

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RATING: ****

 

 

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