Recently, I was listening to Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist, talk about the kinds of stories out there in the world. He said there are only four: a love story between two people, a love story between three people, the quest for power and the hero’s journey. He’s not necessarily wrong, but that doesn’t mean that hybrids don’t exist. The Favourite is both a love story between three people and a story about the quest for power. It’s a story about Great Britain’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) in the early 18thcentury and two would-be suitors vying for her attention, one, a Lady and longtime acquaintance, the other, a former Lady fallen on hard times who’s newly arrived. Whatever kind of story it is, it’s cinematic excellence in every way.
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Release Date: November 23, 2018
Abigail (Emma Stone) is a down-on-her-luck woman with plans to better her situation. She’s well-educated and motivated to make it happen. She journeys to find her cousin Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) at the royal court, hoping to find some form of gainful employment there where Sarah is an influential noble and confidant to the Queen. While her lowly station leaves her vulnerable to early manipulations that harm not only her reputation but her person, she quickly absorbs all the information she can and displays a quick propensity and willingness to manipulate by whatever means necessary all to improve her circumstances. Great Expectations this is not. There is ample machination and plotting and ruthlessness.
When an opportunity to gain favor with the Queen presents itself, Sarah seizes it, and well, then things get more complicated as the political workings of the British royal court take hold.
This will be labeled a period piece, owing to the setting and historic nature of the film--an unfortunate label as it’s far too simplistic. The story might have originated with something you overheard at the bar: two people vying for the attention of, and virtual influence over a third more powerful person is a tale as old as time. This agelessness goes far in The Favourite’s success and it builds with each move and countermove, threat and counter-threat.
Yet, as a period piece, its presentation is impeccable. The level of detail provided to every aspect of life in a royal palace is unparalleled in visual storytelling. This is the new standard for recreating a period from the past. In the opulence of the Queen’s quarters, or the base starkness of the servants’ quarters, no detail escapes proper attention.
One might say the same is true for the performances between the triumvirate of Stone, Weisz, and Colman. These are powerhouse performances by three actresses displaying full command of their talent. While Colman has received early awards buzz, and duly so, she only gets it as her character’s scripting allows for a broader spectrum of emotion than her counterparts who are usually displayed as strong arms gripping her both figuratively and literally by the throat to guide events as they see fit. Conversely, Colman’s Anne displays both the staunch blood-chilling power inherent in Britain’s monarchs of old and also the emotionally fracturing gamut of psychological ails that trouble someone cut off from humanity by their station. Watching Anne stumble through her palace, screaming and wailing, beset by gout, obesity and other physical maladies while servants ignore her for their very lives is one of the most humanizing moments ever given to a cinematic monarch. Her isolation as Queen is near total, and Colman brings it to life beautifully.
Stone, as far as I’m concerned, has been ‘on’ since she first made her Hollywood debut. She’s no different here, but she’s elevated by the vehicle she’s chosen; joining The Favourite was unquestionably wise. Weisz continues to crush 2018, creating another wonderful performance that builds upon the one delivered in Disobedience. The acting is wonderful all around, but these three dominate screen time to a surprising degree given the grand setting in which it takes place. While there are suitable nods that could be allocated to others, in particular I’ll call out Nicholas Hoult who’s just delightful as the leader of the Whig party, Harley. Partly, it’s knowing that it’s him under the makeup and hair, and partly it’s just his usual authenticity he brings to roles, but in any event, his contributions to the manipulations and political scheming are delightful to behold.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos makes the film both funny (and terribly frightening at its conclusion) and stylized to such a degree that his unusual choices of scaling, use of dramatic (and authentic) backlight, camera lens choice and camera movements are so well constructed as to make them masterful. Everything that happens, no matter how unorthodox, is done so well that it seems it should be the norm in cinematic storytelling. Note how characters are displayed in relevance to each other’s station. It’s all rather brilliant, especially when combined with the master-class worthy acting performances and set building.
I’ve avoided plot detail with the same resolute purpose that Yorgos dedicated to including detail in his film because I don’t want to spoil any of it. It’s a film that should have no review spoil its surprises. Rather, know it’s moviegoing excellence and see it with the impact delivered by the big screen. It’s not the usual holiday fanfare, but it’s certainly holiday gold.