If you think the current political situation is beset by madness, walk a mile in the gout-ridden legs of 18th-century monarch Queen Anne. She’s dealing with an endless war, nasty squabbling between her legislative leaders and a libido so insatiable she seeks affairs outside her marriage. Sound familiar? Yes, in Yorgos Lanthimos’ delicious bonbon, “The Favourite,” the comparisons between President Donald Trump and the queen are infinite, right down to their unbridled vanity and distinct disinterest in governing. We even get a hawkish liege futilely attempting to convince a superior to focus while silently absorbing their frequent and random tirades. That’s you, John Kelly.
Isn’t it funny how history repeats itself? With Lanthimos pulling the strings, it’s downright hilarious, and most certainly Oscar-worthy. The talented Greek pulls out all the stops to give you everything you want in a ribald period piece in which treachery runs rampant and it’s executed with the sharpest of knives – and tongues. Even more enjoyable is the fact most of the dagger thrusting mirrors recorded history right down to Queen Anne’s love of female companionship.
Erotic it’s not. OK, maybe a little, especially when it’s women as lovely as Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone doing her majesty’s servicing. As cousins conniving to win the queen’s favor, they will do anything – anything – to prevail, including quenching Anne’s thirst for sexual gratification. It’s family be damned, as the women do ruthless battle in subtle, passive-aggressive ways. The script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara (with an uncredited assist from Lanthimos) follows the “All About Eve” guidebook to a T, with Stone’s disgraced pauper Abigail looking to do a bit of social climbing on the back of Weisz’s well-connected Lady Sarah Churchill, the queen’s closest friend, lover and advisor.
At first, Sarah takes pity on her “charming” cousin, hiring Abigail as her personal maid and providing the lovely wench a bedchamber to rest her scheming bones. But Abigail’s opportunism reveals itself when she forces her way into the queen’s graces by unsolicitedly providing an herbal remedy for the lady’s crippling gout. After that, all niceties are flushed and the war is on. Yet, the two remain surprisingly civil, spending afternoons shooting pigeons on the plush palace grounds. It’s genial, but one senses the carelessness at which they point their weapons is no mere accident. Might one of them actually fire?
Their escalating feud is castle intrigue at its best, ranking right up there with such illustrious company as “The Madness of King George” and Peter O’Toole’s marvelous “The Ruling Class.” What sets this one apart is the decidedly feminine bent that proves women can be every bit as dastardly as men when in pursuit of power. Well, that, and the terrifically snippy dialogue that’s sharp, pointed and lacerating. It’s also often very funny. But “The Favourite” isn’t without its share of heart and compassion for three women who have no business being liked, let alone loved.
Chalk that up to Oscar-winners Stone and Weisz, who know the importance of the proper turn of phrase and pitch of evil eye. As wonderful as they are, the movie truly belongs to little-known Brit marvel Olivia Colman as the addled and oft-confused Anne. She is simply awe-inspiring and completely free of vanity, which is ironic since her character craves flattery as desperately as Trump. Colman, who will next replace Claire Foy as another queen, Elizabeth II, on “The Crown,” spends most of the movie either in bed or wheelchair, limiting much of what she can do physically. Yet, her Anne is a force of discombobulated nature, making it clear that her character may be dotty, but very much a woman in charge whenever the need arises.
Anne’s life has not been easy, symbolized by the cages of rabbits she keeps at her bedside, each a reminder, and a tribute, to the 17 children she’s carried, none of them making it to adulthood. That’s one of the few liberties the film takes with the truth (the rabbits, not the kids who really did perish), but it’s so poignant it’s not unreasonable to think Anne might actually of thought of it back in her day. The hares are also an essential part of the film’s exquisite set decorations summoned by Fiona Crombie, work topped only by the amazing costumes designed by three-time Oscar-winner Sandy Powell (“Shakespeare in Love”). All fit nicely into the yummy eye-candy that’s Robbie Ryan’s stunningly beautiful cinematography.
It’s Lanthimos, though, who left me most impressed. I’ve been one of the few die-hard fans of his polarizing concoctions “The Lobster,” which also starred Weisz and Colman, and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” But neither of those prepared me for the magnificence of “The Favourite,” which represents a huge step forward. Part of that is because this time he and his partner, Efthymis Filippou, weren’t chief writers, thus eliminating their somewhat off-putting love of stilted and affected dialogue. But there’s also an immense growth in the director’s visuals. This time he’s thinking larger, more expansive and the results are breathtaking.
That includes his deft use of music, including a cheeky inclusion of Elton John’s gorgeous “Skyline Pigeon” during the closing credits as a perverse nod to the many birds who (not really) gave their lives during Abigail and Sarah’s many trap-shooting sessions.
Oh, and I can’t leave without again praising the masterful Sandy Powell, who outdoes even herself with not just the women’s bustling dresses and gowns, but also the MEN. They are indeed dandies, sporting towering wigs, lots of rouge and britches so tight little is left to the imagination. Like today, one associates big hair with small brains, and such is the case for the film’s three hapless males: James Smith as Prime Minister Godolphin; Nicholas Hoult as Lord Harley, the PM’s chief rival against escalating the budget-busting war with France; and dashing Joe Alwyn as Abigail’s horny, not-so-secret admirer, Lord Masham.
Men. Who needs them? Certainly not the three feisty women on display here. They all know what they want and won’t hesitate to break any rule or confidence in the quest. They may be ruthless, but they’re also people you don’t dare cross. But if you do, six whacks of the birch will be the least of your worries. You may be subject to something far more painful – their perceived kindness. Believe me, it’s a killer.
Al Alexander may be reached at email@example.com.
Cast includes Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult and Joe Alwyn.
(R for strong sexual content, nudity and language.)