The Favourite tells a story that is universal and essentially timeless. By approaching this 18th century drama in a modern manner, iconoclastic filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) has made his most accessible film to date and cast it to perfection with three great talents: Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, and Olivia Colman.
Here is the tale of a rivalry between two wily, headstrong women who vie for the attention and approval of Queen Anne, a doddering, mercurial leader who contends with a variety of ailments and a notable lack of self-esteem. Rachel Weisz is the power behind the throne, a woman who shows no mercy as she wields her control over everyone who must deal with the monarch. Emma Stone once enjoyed an aristocratic life; now she is grateful for employment as a scullery maid. That gratitude is short-lived, as she sizes up the situation and sees an opportunity for advancement. The dazzlingly versatile Olivia Colman plays the Queen, whose face and body language reveal a panoply of tics, skin problems, and overall anxiety.
It is one thing for rivals to jockey for power, or to seek favor at court. It is quite another situation when their leader is as erratic and unstable as Queen Anne.
Weisz and Stone square off in a battle of wits that is bathed in vitriol. Although Weisz currently sits in the catbird seat, she quickly realizes that she is vulnerable and acts accordingly. Five years ago I wouldn’t have thought Stone capable of carrying off this role, but she has matured as an actress and is fully worthy of this challenging role opposite the formidable Weisz.
The early 18th century settings seem authentic, but scenes in the Royal Palace are photographed with wide-angle lenses and rapid pan shots that show them off in a way that is revolutionary—and highly effective. Kudos to cinematographer Robbie Ryan and production designer Fiona Crombie for realizing their director’s vision so well. The contemporary feel in its central characters’ conflict is matched by its visual style.
This may well be Lanthimos’ most accessible film to date. The screenplay, credited to Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, is meaty and wicked. The movie also benefits from the director’s collaboration with superior talents on both sides of the camera. (I particularly enjoyed Nicholas Hoult as a bewigged and powdered Tory leader who struggles to make his case to the Queen in spite of the hurdles placed in his path.)
Small wonder that The Favourite has been winning critical approval at film festivals around the world. It is a universal, essentially timeless tale, exquisitely mounted and perfectly cast. It comes to American theaters with a justifiable reputation as one of the year’s best.