The Favourite: The Mother of all Catfights

The Favourite
(UK/Ireland/USA, 120 min.)
Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, Writ. Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Starring: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn  
Rachel Wesiz and Olivia Colman in The Favourite
Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos / Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Favourite is a saucy delight. Buoyed by a trio of courtly wenches in award-calibre performances, this spirited portrait of the affairs of Queen Anne in 1700ish Britain is a darkly funny romp. It’s the cleverest take on All About Eve since Working Girl as social climbing strumpet Abigail (Emma Stone) seeks to dethrone her cousin, Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Malborough (Rachel Weisz) as the Queen’s BFF. Both ladies cozy up to Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and assure her that she’s the bee’s knees when all evidence points to the contrary. These mean girls have cruel intentions.

Directed with whacked-out audacity by Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), The Favourite kicks costume drama conventions in the rear with a meticulously detailed, yet vibrantly contemporary interpretation of the gendered dynamics of power and control in ye olden days. From the costumes by Sandy Power to the off-kilter lensing by Robbie Ryan to the formidable ensemble cast, each frame is extravagantly composed to turn the tropes of the period dramas on their heads. The ladies of The Favourite fight for queen and country—and the most wicked trick of Lanthimos's direction is the special emphasis that the characters place on the first syllable of the latter.

England is at war with France, but the most powerful people in the land, if not the world, are more concerned with racing ducks, throwing oranges, and tasting these exotic fruits called “pineapples.” The skewering of English aristocracy has never been funnier. The spirit of Tom Jones and Barry Lyndon endures as The Favourite takes audiences to court for the mother of all catfights.

Naturally, it starts with an outsider, Abigail, who refuses to accept her place. Abigail comes from a respectable family, but her father’s gambling problems forced her into an early marriage that lowered her social rank. Her plan to step up is to request employment in the Queen’s company at the behest of her cousin, Lady Sarah, who manages Queen Anne’s affairs—of many kinds (wink, wink)—as the film dabbles with the salacious bits of history in which the munching of the Royal Rug is the highest position a lady of the court may hold. The power play begins innocently enough with Abigail scooting out to grab some herbs to soothe Anne’s gout, but, following a few lashes from Sarah, Abigail makes a point of letting Queen Anne know that she is responsible for the balmy treatment, leaving it to the Queen to invite her back to the bedchamber.  

That’s how these little games begin. Everyone at court knows that Queen Anne is not well, physically or mentally, and a band rivals surrounds her and courts her for their own gains. The war distracts Sarah’s attention away from girly stuff with the Queen as she uses her savvy political prowess to build England’s power. In the court, battles are drawn between the powerful Whigs and the opposing Tories—and both parties know that the Queen only needs a compliment, insult, or light breeze to be influenced.

There are great layers to the personal and political rivalries within the Queen’s castle as Abigail and Sarah trade blows tit-for-tat in a battle of advances, retreats, and retaliations. However, wars are also waged through allies and Abigail takes up a liking to Tory leader Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult). She uses the power of information to dethrone Sarah, who stands in high favour with the Whigs and encourages the Queen to keep spending dollars and lives on this costly war. The band of rivals scurries about the court, adapting to Anne’s moody temperament and ongoing histrionics. Lanthimos lends the circus of backstabbing a contemporary panache as the women wield the power while the men concern themselves with witticisms and frivolous arcana, like Film Twitter boys reciting the rules for Fight Club (Fincher, 1999).

The Favourite finds in its three stars a powerhouse love triangle for royal comedy. Stone’s vulgar Americanness contrasts splendidly with Weisz’s dignified Englishness. Abigail is a calculating tease and Stone, who often plays these wholesome all-American girls, is a hoot performing against type. She’s a rollicking lead for The Favourite’s trifecta of actresses as Abigail schemes, backstabs, and undermines Sarah with an eye to usurp her position. Weisz, on the other hand, brings, poise, composure, and confidence to the equation. Sarah is posh and powerful, and she knows it, and her relationship with Anne is alternatively tender and authoritative. She is slyly funny, unscrupulously Machiavellian, and faintly aroused by Abigail’s threat to her power, using this personal affair as a sparring match for the greater war she and her husband hope to win for England.

As great as Stone and Weisz are, however, The Favourite belongs to Olivia Colman. The great actress from Peep Show, London Road, Tyrannosaur, and The Irony Lady has an uncanny ability to turn on a dime and display shifts of consciousness in a character in the way few actors, like Meryl Streep, can do while juggling comedy and tragedy. She is perfectly cast to play Anne’s unfortunately hilarious baggage of her mood swings, physical infirmities, and crippling insecurities. It is a treat to see the actress recognize the opportunity at her hands and thoroughly attack such a plum role. Colman is both hilarious and heartbreaking as Anne suffers as the pawn moved by various hands, but she’s surprisingly sympathetic for a Queen so prone to flattery. Queen Anne wears the weight of her crown in the pressure of upholding the royal bloodline, as the film reiterates the character’s struggle with 17 lost pregnancies, each of which took a piece of her psyche with it. The complexity of Anne’s fragile, whacked-out psychology feeds the comedy and tragedy with equal measures.

The Favourite finds the perfect metaphor for the cruelties of the court life, both those imposed by society and those self-inflected, in the band of bunny rabbits that Anne keeps caged in her room as sad placebos for the princes and princesses she never bore. These bunnies, named for her lost children, comfort Anne when she feels the failures of being both the Royal Uterus and the country’s leader. No matter how hard Abigail and Sarah scheme, they can never replace a mother’s love for her children. At the same time, the bunnies of the court, be they Whigs, Tories, Ladies, or whores, are all caught up in a pointless game of competition. No matter how much favour they curry or how much influence they wield, they’re all just rabbits in a cage, hopelessly vying for the affection of a woman who just wants some love.

The Favourite opens in Toronto on Dec. 7.