by Alan Yudman
Costume dramas are staples of Hollywood, especially during award season. At the end of 2018 we have two to chose from, MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS and THE FAVOURITE. I have yet to see MARY, so I cannot speak about that yet. But I imaging those two movies could not be more different. Judging from the trailer, MARY seems quite traditional. There is nothing traditional about THE FAVOURITE other than the costumes.
I would describe THE FAVOURITE as an 18th century political sex comedy. Queen Anne is a sickly, insecure ruler. She is manipulated by Lady Sarah Marlborough who is running the country. But the manipulation isn’t only to achieve power for Lady Sarah. She seems to truly love the Queen. They apparently had been friends long before Anne became Queen. And that friendship became a secret love affair. But into this strange relationship steps Abigail, whose father’s gambling caused the family to lose status and forced her to seek employment as a scullery maid. But as with most characters in this story, she has ulterior motives. Eventually she schemes her way into the Queen’s inner circle and replaces Sarah in the Queen’s life.
That’s the basic outline of the film, but Yorgos Lanthimos takes that and creates a funny, bizarre world. Sex isn’t sexy, it is used as a means to exercise power and in a few instances love. The cinematography is unique in a good way. The colors are spare except for splashes of bright red. The costumes are fantastic, but mostly shades of black and white. The sound mixing is wonderful.. the clicking of heels on wooden floors is almost a character unto itself.
But what makes this movie soar is the three lead actors. Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne is vulnerable at first, and grows more powerful as her story progresses. She is never fully authoritarian, but she comes close. People seem to bow to her because of her position, not because of any real fear. Colman transforms physically through the movie. She is never fully healthy, but she is fairly falling apart by the end, which is a nice juxtaposition with her increasing self confidence. I can see why Colman is mentioned as a Best Actress contender. It is a remarkable performance.
Rachel Weisz also evolves from secure and powerful to vulnerable and resigned. Try as she might she cannot out maneuver Abigail. She doesn’t suffer any of the fools in the Queen’s court gladly and in the end that may be her undoing. But she isn’t one dimensional. She really loves Anne and their relationship is at times very sweet and loving.
Emma Stone doesn’t appear to evolve. Her deferential innocence is a masque she puts on to achieve the goal of regaining status and power. Stone’s reputation for playing the ingenue or innocent serves her well here. Because she takes a turn we haven’t seen her play before. And it really shows off her ability. This is a role she needed to grow as an actor, at least in the eyes of the audience. Abigail’s single-minded aspiration drives her and the movie forward. She marries an army officer, which re-establishes her in the court. But it is obviously a marriage of convenience. Oh and Stone’s British accent never slips. It’s quite a performance.
it’s hard to categorize one of Colman, Weisz or Stone as the lead actor. I know Colman received the Golden Globe nomination as the lead and Weisz and Stone as supporting, but that could easily be reshuffled. There are essentially three leads and it is impossible to say one is better than the other.
I cannot end before mentioning rabbits. Queen Anne has 17 rabbits. One for each child she conceived but who died either after birth or in utero. It’s something to use a rabbit, which was historically killed in a pregnancy test, to stand in for a dead child. I don’t think that’s an accident. It just adds to the bizarreness.
This movie could have been much worse, but the performances of Colman, Stone and Weisz should make THE FAVOURITE a favorite for a castle full of Oscar nominations.