If I had to describe The Favourite in one word, I would probably say it is ‘refreshing’.
The film has so far netted over 100 awards, including the Grand Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival for the film’s director, Yorgos Lanthimos, and is a major Oscar contender for 2019.
The Favourite charts the rise of Emma Stone’s impoverished 17th century aristocrat, Abigail, from scullery maid in the Queen’s household to the titular position of royal favourite. However, to secure her position and gain a measure of security she must first unseat the current favourite, Lady Sarah, played by Rachel Weisz.
Olivia Colman, who won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of the gouty, volatile Queen Anne, has been outspoken in declaring the film as an ensemble piece with the role of lead actress being shared between herself, Stone and Weisz. This is perhaps fitting, as the film makes clear the strong yet tangled ties which bind their characters together.
Historians have debated whether Anne’s passionate letters to Lady Sarah are evidence of a lesbian romance and The Favourite is wonderfully unabashed in assuming this to be true for the purposes of the film. It is also refreshing to see a same-sex relationship portrayed as less than ideal while avoiding the tired love-against-all-odds trope. While Anne and Sarah’s relationship is shown to be passionate, it is also deeply unhealthy, with both taking their frustrations at their limited lives out on each other. And as if that was not enough, England is busy waging an expensive war with France.
Into this perfect storm of dysfunction lands Abigail. Her situation is more precarious than either Anne or Sarah’s but the film makes sure to let the audience know that any woman's fall from grace can be hard and fast.
Of course, one of the main joys of watching a period drama is sighing over all the lovely costumes. The Favourite is no exception, although veteran costume designer Sandy Powell sticks to a muted palette so as not to distract from the action and to draw greater attention to changes in style and texture which invariably signify a change in station.
While watching the film I couldn’t help but compare the women's fight over Anne to ducks: superficially serene and graceful, while working furiously beneath the surface to stay afloat. Perhaps it is fitting then that we get a scene of the men at court engaging in duck racing. Films set in this particular time period are few and far between and the film effectively creates a picture of the world as it was then in both visual style and the soundtrack.
Much has been made of the film’s cinematography, with critics occasionally taking issue with the use of odd angles and unflattering close-ups of the actors’ faces. However the visual style is merely an extension of the film’s plot: the audience is perpetually unbalanced and uneasy in much the same way that the three women are in their quest for stability and power. When combined with the precise measures in baroque music the audience is immersed into a world where the pace of life could be tedious and relentless at the same time. Sound designer Johnnie Burn stated in an interview that “There was no composer on this film; we were working a lot in that space between music and sound,” and this is perhaps why the sound design and use of baroque music throughout create such a compelling atmosphere.
Some have also commented on the films anachronistic dialogue but this is a shorthand used to ensure that the women and their story remain at the centre of the narrative rather than being drowned out by pretty costumes and imposing sets. The story stays grounded to the characters: in their pain, their frustration and their feelings toward one another. It also preserves the film’s humor, which is sorely needed once you know why Anne insists on keeping seventeen rabbits in her room.
My verdict: The Favourite is a funny, sad, refreshing, rollicking period drama filled with stellar performances and is a must-watch for this year.