The year is 1708, and Britain is at war with France. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is ill and prefers to spend her days hidden away in her quarters, stuffing her face with sweets until she vomits. In her absence, the act of running the kingdom rests on the capable shoulders of the Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), Queen Anne’s closest friend, strongest ally, and secret lover. Or maybe their love isn’t so secret. Servants aren’t allowed to say much, but surely they suspect something.
Enter Abigail Hall (Emma Stone), Sarah’s cousin from a good family who fell from grace when Abigail’s father lost her in a game of Whist. Seeking employment, Abigail arrives at Anne’s estate stinking to high hell and covered head-to-toe in human filth. The world has not been kind to Abigail, and she has nowhere to go but up. Sarah better guard herself. In her position, she has little to gain and much to lose. Let the fun begin.
Written by Deborah Davis, with additional work from Tony MacNamara, The Favourite is a pitch-perfect power struggle between three women, two political parties, and one suitor. And with its core story rooted in historical events, the parallels to the modern-day make The Favourite all the more entertaining. Nothing here is subtle; everything is exaggerated. From the high-school hysterics of the three leads to the men prancing around in powdered wigs and pancake makeup. There’s even a duck race, won, of course, by “the fastest duck in town.”
If The Favourite sounds like a trifle, a drawing-room comedy filled with spoiled brats, rest assured it isn’t—director Yorgos Lantimos balances absurdity with pathos, deftly moving between the two without tipping too far in either direction. In one scene, Anne tells Abigail about the rabbits she keeps in her room—17 in all, one for every child she lost in childbirth. In another scene, Abigail returns the honesty, telling Anne about the horrors of being a woman traded in a card game, a fate Sarah tastes when Abigail momentarily gains the upper hand in their constant struggle for queen bee supremacy. Yes, these women treat each other cruelly, but only because the world has taught them so well.
Thankfully, The Favourite is funny. Laugh out loud so. If it weren’t, it would be unbearable. All three leads—Colman, Weisz, Stone—are at the top of their game, as is the supporting cast, led by Nicholas Hoult as Robert Harley, the leader of the Tory party and a constant thorn in Sarah’s side.
But at the heart of The Favourite is the eternal conflict of power and how one grasps it. Power is as fickle as it is amorphous. Sure, some may have it now, but they won’t forever. And, like all good things, the end comes much quicker than those in control could ever suspect—or want.
The Favourite (2018)
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Produced by Ceci Dempsey, Ed Guiney, Yorgos Lanthimos, Lee Magiday
Starring: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult, Mark Gatiss
A24, Rated R, Running time 119 minutes, Premiered Aug. 30, 2018 at the Venice Film Festival.
The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 26, No. 18, “Anarchy in the U.K.“
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