The historical period piece, commonly known as the ‘costume drama’ has long been a staple come awards season, often attracting nominations in the categories of acting, costume and set design. Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, who burst onto the scene with 2009’s Dogtooth, has steadily put out original and interesting work, and some of my favorites of the past 5 years in The Lobster (2015) and last year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Lanthimos breaks a career trend by directing a movie not penned by him (at least since 2001), but with excellent results. The Favourite is still odd, but littered with humor and some standout performances, most of all by Olivia Colman as Queen Anne.
Based on actual people and events, the film is told in chapters building toward a surprising finale. Colman as Anne is a sort of sad and bumbling wimp, assisted heavily in her duties as Queen by Rachel Weisz’s Lady Sarah. Queen Anne prefers to eat, mope, and tend to her rabbits, which represent her 17 miscarriages and infant deaths. Lady Sarah is, for all intents and purposes the actual Queen, sitting in on meetings and feeding Anne important decisions based on whims. Enter Abigail, played by Emma Stone, looking to establish herself once again as a lady after her family has fallen on hard times. Abigail seeks employment at the Queen’s palace but is also looking for an opening to ascend up the ladder.
It’s here where the fun begins as both Lady Sarah and Abigail jockey for Queen Anne’s affections and thus elevate their position. Also thrown into the mix is Nicholas Hoult’s Harley, who is dissatisfied with Lady Sarah’s influence and ultimately strikes a deal with Abigail to combine forces for their own mutually beneficial gain. The constant back and forth from the key players has had many reviewers aptly compare this film to a modern day All About Eve. I had another more recent film spring to mind in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which had Steve Martin and Michael Caine one upping each other for an heiress’s fortune.
There are many laugh out loud moments in The Favourite, including one of the strangest dance sequences caught on film, and the courting of Abigail by Joe Alwyn’s Masham. All three lead actresses have terrific moments and any one of them could be up for Best Actress and Supporting Actress come the Oscar nominations. Coleman is note perfect as the Queen, struggling with her confidence and health and really does transform by the film’s end. Oscar winner Weisz is fierce and unmerciful in her portrayal of Lady Sarah, and this might be one of her best performances to date. Also an Oscar winner, Stone is finally given a meaty role that she has a blast with, weaving her way through this royal maze to gain a better life at any cost. Hoult is actually quite funny too and could very easily be on the shortlist for a nomination.
Lanthimos certainly has his stamp on this and proves he can deliver regardless if it’s a film based on his own material or not. He seems to have a knack for bringing out the best in his actors and is unafraid to take risks with his off-kilter humour. I for one am relieved to see that he isn’t becoming a predictable one-note director, something which can often happen to the next big things as the industry slaps a commercial label on them.
The Favourite is the kind of film that rewards you through multiple viewings and is truly a breath of fresh air, a break from the norm in terms of the glut of carefully crafted period piece dramas we’ve seen before. It’ll hardly be a surprise to see it featuring on critic’s Best of 2018 lists and it’s success come awards season is also fairly assured. This is history retold in a refreshingly humorous, joyous manner as only Lanthimos’ can do and gets my firm recommendation.
Film ’89 Verdict – 9/10
The Favourite is on general theatrical release now.