It’s interesting when viewing two thematically similar movies back to back. It’s easy to draw comparisons, especially when one of the films does a vastly superior job achieving its creative goals. After seeing the rather tepid “Mary Queen of Scots,” I decided to give “The Favourite” a go—another movie that delves into the inner machinations of the British monarchy and of those who would do anything to clutch the reigns of power.
Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is the emotionally turbulent, gout-ridden leader of the British empire, which is currently dealing with a number of issues at home and abroad. Once again, the pesky French are causing trouble as they believe they should be the world’s preeminent colonizers and oppressors. The wealthy aristocrats are unhappy with land taxes to fund a war, and desperately want to broker peace with France while the military advisers are hawkish on the idea of socking them in their pea-soup sipping faces.
The Queen relies heavily on her confidant and secret advisor, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), who offers counsel to her majesty on matters of politics, war and cunnilingus techniques. Their relationship is a complicated melange of mutual admiration and manipulation. The queen has a child-like temperment, from having the kind of epic entitlement complex that comes from a lifetime of her every whim being catered to with haste. The queen and Sarah’s relationship is interesting: Sarah has to exhibit care, empathy and the kind of blunt honesty that Anne rarely hears. She has earned the queen’s respect and affection.
Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) is living a completely different existence, having been sold off by her affluent, well-connected father to settle some debts. Her once luxurious life had been decimated by tragedy. So, she finds her way to the royal manor and to Sarah, who happens to be her cousin. Sarah takes pity on Abigail and gets her an entry-level job as a lowly, floor-scrubbing servant, but Abigail has bigger plans. After working her way into Sarah’s favor, she gets a promotion and starts work as Sarah’s assistant. This puts her a stone’s throw away from the most powerful woman in the world.
Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) sees Abigail as a potential asset in his plans to sway the queen away from war and improve his political standings. Abigail proves herself to be a formidable foil to Sarah, and begins to plot and scheme by finding ways to draw the attention of Queen Anne. She is a fresh, new and vibrant presence in the queen’s life. Abigail gains her affection, at least for a short while, until she begins to bore of Abigail and pines for the deeper relationship she shares with Sarah. And, so, Abigail realizes she has no choice but to destroy Sarah and preserve the elevated status she has achieved.
“The Favourite” is a delight—a wonderful, dramatic and theatrical film that provides a number of extremely interesting personalities with shifting social dynamics. Unlike “Mary Queen of Scots,” the royal drama of “The Favourite” feels appropriately dramatic and human. The motivations are clear, and the material allows an exceptionally talented cast to create entertaining characters. Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne is a fascinating mix of melancholy and manic mood swings. All the wealth and power brings her no real happiness—only fleeting moments of pleasure, soon to be engulfed by the magnitude of her role and responsibilities. Colman’s performance is as award-worthy as anything I’ve ever seen. Weisz and Stone are equally impressive in roles that provide a whole lot of meat for them to chew on.
Director Yorgos Lathimos (“The Lobster,” “The Sacred Killing of a Deer”) is one of the most interesting directors working today. He has a very distinct style that lends itself well to this claustrophobic story, and he manages to achieve a sense of scope, making the privileged prison these characters exist within seem both endless and suffocating. People who prefer a drier, more historically accurate and reverent Merchant-Ivory-style drama might be incredulous about the literary liberties taken here. But I found “The Favourite” to be a ridiculously entertaining, pitch-black story. Every frame was fascinating and the brutal triangle of lies, love and deception was easily one of the most engaging experiences I have had at the theater.