MOVIE REVIEW: The Favourite
Gala Presentation of the 54th Chicago International Film Festival
THE FAVOURITE— 3 STARS
There is a scene early in The Favourite that sums up this writer’s feelings on the film. Allow a description. A nobleman of Parliament named Robert Harley, played in garish makeup by Nicholas Hoult, has requested an audience with Queen Anne (a presently off-screen hot mess embodied by Olivia Colman). The slovenly monarch with a penchant for bunnies has taken ill and sends her advisor, Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, played by Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz, in her stead. Having watched the way the lady operates up to this point, we know a verbal spar is coming and Harley should prepare for disappointment.
Prompted and prepared, the foppish forerunner makes a self-serving yet reasonably logical request on matters of the ensuing war against France occurring in this opening decade of the 18th century. Sure enough, his request is rebuffed coldly on the spot by Mrs. Churchill without dialogue to Queen. Harley pauses and then revolts in an amusing physical reaction, shucking his formality to kick a tray of drinkware to the floor behind him with a touch of profanity. His outburst does not phase the alpha female and cues the equally frosty reaction of a demand that he will be sure to clean that up.
I am Nicholas Hoult’s Harley watching The Favourite. I am the frustrated impatience. I want the emotional explosion. Right when I feel like I can embrace the darkly comic tone before me, it snaps back with inflexibility to move or matter. His exasperation is my exasperation for yet another Yorgos Lanthimos film following The Lobster and The Killing of the Sacred Deer. In the end, the boredom and dryness still dominate to blast away chances for connection like buckshot through a targeted pigeon’s feathers and flesh.
These matters of power, politics, and passion go deeper through the powdered wig corridors of the royal household setting. The puppeteering barbs of Sarah Churchill, wife to the military leader at the front, attach her to every layer, with her deepest hooks penetrating the secret sexual seduction of the Queen herself (a second trip down this rabbit hole for Weisz this year after Disobedience). A new element of burning lye is introduced to the sardonic soap washing the dirty sheets in the form of Abigail Hill, played by Oscar winner Emma Stone. She is an educated and former lady of status who has been knocked down the pecking order of wealth by her father’s poor management of fortunes. The morally inquisitive young woman has come to her cousin Sarah penniless and in need of employment. Starting as a servant, Abigail ingratiates herself to Queen Anne and quickly becomes the film’s title, gaining both male and female gazes to push Sarah out. As you can ascertain from that Harley episode, crossing her carries calamitous consequences.
LESSON #1: DON’T CROSS THE BOSS — In The Favourite, starting at the top with Queen Anne and working down, whoever carries the influence can call down their own personal hell if necessary to proverbially seduce or rape those who err. If you don’t know who’s in charge or if you’re being commanding, you better check yourself and get back in your place before you are dealt with. Be careful, underlings.
LESSON #2: FAVOR IS NEVER PERMANENT — If Lesson #1 doesn’t already queue this up, then the actions on display in the movie will be reinforcement. Hoult’s Harley drops a great line stating “favor is a breeze that shifts direction all the time.” The rest of the dialogue he follows with describing who is figuratively pleasuring or screwing who is a crude example of the many ways the fickleness of favor can develop. Loyalties can be loosened, secrets are for sale, and confidence on all sides is unpredictably critical.
Stitched and corseted in rich production value, The Favourite has many elements that rightly impress. The tawdry troika of Stone, Weisz, and Colman are given rich lines to spit in quarrel thanks to the cauldron of conflict scripted by feature film newcomer Deborah Davis and television veteran Tony McNamara. The plainly spoken put-downs and courteous contempt are unwavering with wimpy wails and wicked wit. Their script bracingly presents slyly embedded commentary to the politics of the present day, which many will value with glee. Not a single one of the actresses, especially Emma Stone, the American newcomer to cross-Atlantic costume fare, withers under the besmirching gravity of their conniving characters. Colman may showcase the wild range and Stone may be the revelation, but Weisz, the Lanthimos muse from The Lobster, is the scene-stealing pro. The purposefully mean-spirited acting and writing of this pitch black comedy deserve the awards attention they are receiving.
The same can be said for the rich production values. The hair and makeup supervised by Samantha Denyer and the top notch costumes from three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell bathe these beautiful barnacles in finery as they saunter and strut through Fiona Crowbie’s period-era production design chambers covered in canvases. All of the artists are operating under the sharp and distinctive style of Yorgos Lanthimos, right down to his justified title and credits fonts. The Greek filmmaker employed cinematographer Robbie Ryan (American Honey) to execute his tagalong tracking, camera whips, rear-tailing views, slow-motion montages, and slightly walleyed lens.
The Favourite has a wider scope and warmer temperature than Lanthimos’ previous two films. His aim for deadpan delivery highly on display last year in The Killing of the Sacred Deer bends to occasionally include pulse-quickening emotions and diaphragm-shaking chuckles. The Favourite says that “love has limits.” The same can be said for Lanthimos. He is the exact definition of an acquired taste. The brilliance is there, with much to love and plenty still to rebuke.