THE FAVOURITE is the best picture nominated latest from director Yorgos Lanthimos, who I know from THE LOBSTER. I’m behind on this guy because I still haven’t even seen DOGTOOTH, let alone THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, but I get the feeling this is the least weird of his movies. It’s also the only one he doesn’t have a writing credit on, instead using a script by newcomer Deborah Davis (her first produced screenplay, even though she wrote the first draft 20 years ago!) and Australian TV writer Tony McNamara. It’s a historical costume drama about palace intrigue, nothing conceptually crazy going on here, but it has a distinctive off-kilter feel and biting humor not always beholden to things people would’ve said at the time.
It takes place in 1708 at the palace of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, LOCKE) a slightly dim and insecure matriarch who seems to be indebted to and enamored of her closest friend and adviser, Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz, DEATH MACHINE). While the queen is preoccupied with petting bunnies and betting on duck races and shit, Sarah gets her anything she needs. She also pretty much controls the Queen’s political maneuvers, which is particularly important at the moment since Britain has just won a crucial battle against France. Sarah’s husband Duke John (Mark Gatiss, VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN) leads the battalion that she insists must attack, while the Loyal Opposition Leader Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer (Nicholas Hoult, CLASH OF THE TITANS), who would seem ridiculously pompous even without the wig and makeup, tries to get her to end the war and related taxes.
Then Abigail Masham, Baroness of Masham (Emma Stone, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN) arrives, being literally tossed off a carriage outside. A cousin of Sarah whose insane father lost her in a card game before burning away the family fortune and himself, she hopes for a job, and gets one in the scullery. Stone weaponizes her usual charm to make Abigail an underdog. She comes in literally covered in mud, willing to embarrass and degrade herself. Not only does Sarah turn her nose up at Abigail, but even the maids she works with immediately hate her and play pranks on her. Still, she keeps her chin up and has a sense of humor about it. Which is crazy, because when I say “play pranks on her” what I mean is “cause her to seriously burn her hand by not telling her the soap bucket is filled with lye.”
She seems like a go-getter, smart and confident and self-reliant. And what she goes and gets are some herbs out in the woods that she mixes into a salve to soothe her burned skin. Then she lies her way into the Queen’s chambers to, without permission, put some of it on her infected legs. When Sarah finds out about it she has Abigail whipped, then when she finds out the Queen liked it she gives her a promotion.
There’s a funny moment when Abigail finds a contrived way to mention to the Queen that it was her that mixed that salve. Embarrassing but effective move. She turns out to be pretty good at fitting these loaded statements into fake-casual conversation, for example when she accidentally finds out the Queen and Sarah are lovers, and threatens Sarah by telling her she would never dream of telling anyone what she knows.
And really she doesn’t. Instead she decides to move in on Sarah’s territory. She gets into Her Majesty’s favor by getting into her, uh, parts. And this is potentially disastrous because the Queen isn’t really capable of ruling on her own and now she’s on the outs with the person who can. Abigail cares more about power than Britain, so she’s never gonna fill Sarah’s shoes.
It’s a neat trick how late in the movie (SPOILER?) I started to realize that Abigail, who I’d been rooting for, was in fact a sociopath, and Sarah, who had seemed like such a judgmental snob, is much more deserving of my sympathy. And it’s not an ALL ABOUT EVE thing where the competition and the attention turns Abigail into a monster. It’s more like this is who she was from the beginning, but I misjudged her.
Cinematographer Robbie Ryan (PHILOMENA) is up for an Oscar, which surprised me at first when I thought of this movie in comparison to the lush beauty of not-nominated IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK. But then I remembered the weird fisheye looking distortion that seems to happen especially when the camera pans – it definitely has a bag of tricks that’s unusual for this type of movie. I was delighted to read in an interview with Deadline that Lanthimos made Ryan watch the fucked up Austrian serial killer movie ANGST. He wanted to re-create that amazing rig that’s attached to the killer as he walks around, but they decided it was too hard to do with these elaborate period costumes.
Anyway, it was shot on film with natural light. You don’t see that every day anymore. Good use of your clout, Lanthimos.
It seems kind of weird to me that Weisz and Stone, who seem like the main characters to me, are nominated for best supporting actress, while Colman is nominated for lead. Whatever the politics of that, it’s a great character and performance. She’s a mess from the beginning and it’s funny for a while but begins to be more tragic the more we learn about her. That’s one thing about a monarchy is you end up putting the burden of leadership on a person who’s completely unequipped for it. Well, I guess that happens in other systems too. Shit.
It’s a movie set in giant rooms and gardens and long hallways, and they’re usually pretty empty. Sometimes there aren’t even servants or guards anywhere to be seen. So it really emphasizes that it’s this small group of people who make these decisions that affect the lives (and deaths) of so many people across Britain and France. And it’s all mixed up in the Queen’s depression, sickness and ignorance, her decisions manipulated by her lover or a spy, their personal relationships interfering in all of it. It really is a strong reminder that behind all the fancy architecture and clothing and titles and traditions are just regular, dumb, flawed fucking human beings. A scary thought.
Costume dramas about kings and queens are not something that normally appeals to me. I only saw this one because I liked the previous movie I saw by the director. So I can confirm that this has an appeal for people who aren’t normally into the genre. It’s funny and odd and, if it weren’t based on historical figures, could work in other time periods. If you like the dresses and stuff I’m sure that’s a bonus.
Please note that there’s also a 2018 Christian movie called THE FAVORITE, no U, starring John Schneider from Dukes of Hazzard. As far as I can tell that one is based on a different story.
And by the way, I could not for the life of me tell you exactly what the very last scene is supposed to mean, so I look forward to your interpretations in the comments.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.