15 January 2019

The Favourite review

"Everything is about sex except sex. Sex is about power". It's a quote often misattributed to Oscar Wilde (as far as I'm aware, no one actually knows where it came from), but more importantly, it's a quote that couldn't help but come to mind when thinking about The Favourite, the latest film from The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer director Yorgos Lanthimos. In The Favourite, sex is seemingly only ever a means of establishing power, whether that be through attempting to create an heir, marrying for a title, paying a debt or even simply gaining someone's favour. It is the latter of these that The Favourite naturally spends most of its time on, but make no mistake - sex and power are intrinsically linked throughout, whether it be staring you in the face or hiding just out of view, obscured somewhat by the norms and systems of society but still very much ever present.

It's a thematic core that in the wrong hands could've easily come across as misogynistic, playing into tired femme fatale tropes without a shred of irony or self-awareness, but thankfully Lanthimos (and writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara) are smarter than that, able to ensure that we understand this to be a societal phenomena rather than a gendered one thanks to just how much of The Favourite ultimately circles back and highlights this link. Take, for example, a scene in which a naked guy who looks so much like James Corden that you'll do a double take gets pelted with rotten fruit for the entertainment of a group of bawdy male politicians, or one in which another politician sits there "stroking his goose" (not an innuendo within the context of this review but very much a visual innuendo within the film itself) as he and an opponent speak with the Queen - I wasn't over-exaggerating earlier when I called this link "ever present", and the result is a film just as focused and thematically interesting as The Lobster, and equally fascinating to think about after the fact.

Set during the War of Spanish Succession, we follow the once wealthy but now broke Abigail Hill as she starts work as a maid in Queen Anne's court, gaining the job thanks to the fact that her cousin is Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough and the Queen's most trusted adviser. After Abigail creates an ointment that helps the Queen deal with her gout, Queen Anne takes a liking to her, making her a lady-in-waiting and in the process starting a competition between Sarah and Abigail for the Queen's favour - and the power that comes with it.

And so it begins, a game in which Abigail and Sarah are constantly trying to outwit and outplay one another in order to become Queen Anne's favourite and achieve their goals, whether they be political or personal or both in nature, and as you might've guessed based on my opening paragraphs, sex plays a major part. The Favourite might not be the most historically accurate film you've ever seen, but then again that's by no means what it's trying to achieve - instead, it's simply using the vague historical theory that Queen Anne may have had a lesbian relationship with Abigail Hill as a kicking off point for an engrossing tale of female rivalry and political machinations in the 18th century.

The reason it works is simple - Queen Anne, Sarah and Abigail are interesting on paper anyway thanks to Davis and McNamara's captivating and often hilarious script, but once you factor in the brilliant performances given by the three leading ladies, these characters all take on additional life and really pop from the screen in ways they simply wouldn't have with different actresses in the roles. You've got Emma Stone as Abigail Hill, who brings a very modern sheen to this initially naive point of view character; Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill, who plays her as confident and domineering and downright unshakable in the face of opposition (with a bunch of fantastic outfits to boot - if we don't see Weisz play a maverick pirate captain in something soon, we've failed as a species); and of course the brilliant Olivia Colman as the sickly and deeply unstable Queen Anne, whose instability is first played for comedy (and to great effect) but soon morphs into something quite tragic, showing yet again that Colman is a far more talented actress than she has been given credit for in the past.

Seeing them interact with and bounce off one another is where the vast majority of The Favourite's entertainment value comes from, especially as the aforementioned great screenplay slowly reveals more information about these characters over the course of the films running time, forcing you to rethink whose side your on multiple times as you learn more about them and as their actions get more extreme. There are other characters in The Favourite, of course - I'd be remiss to not at least mention Nicholas Hoult's vile and conniving (but oddly compelling) Robert Harley - but they're very much secondary in nature, only really existing as a way to further complicate this triangle and add external pressure. There's no denying that The Favourite is an incredibly tightly focused movie, after all.

But maybe that's somewhat to its detriment, come the end. I mentioned earlier that The Favourite is hilarious, and that's true - but only really for the first 2/3rds or so of its running time. As tensions mount and Abigail and Sarah begin to go even further in their attempt to become Queen Anne's favourite, The Favourite's increasingly laser-like focus on this story means that there's less time for the kind of character informing (and audience pleasing) humour that defined the earlier parts of the movie, and while the story itself is still strong enough to keep you engaged, it has to be said that I missed the comedy a fair bit.

Add to that an ending that can't help but feel underwhelming and a touch conventional in comparison to the film preceding it and sadly, The Favourite can't help but be a movie that ends not with a bang but... well, certainly not with a whimper, but not quite the extravagant fireworks you may have been hoping for either. Still, I'd be lying if I tried to claim that The Favourite is anything other than a film I enjoyed a great deal, engaging on a number of levels throughout and more accessible than Lanthimos' previous movies without losing his distinctive style or voice - and at the end of the day, that still all adds up to make a movie that's very much worth watching, flaws and all.

4 stars

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