Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is reminiscent of The Lion in Winter, in that both films reject historical accuracy to give audiences a better slice of life than what stuffy movies tracking timelines do. Just as King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine never had a nighmarish Christmas weekend full of bickering, Queen Anne probably was never really involved in a love triangle with a high-level advisor and a maid. It never matters of course, because The Favourite is an audacious piece of cinema from start to finish.
The Favourite is set in 1704, while England is at war with France. As men are dying on the continent, the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is obsessed with winning her favor even as she struggles through several health ailments. Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) is already Anne’s closest confidant, so much so that they have a secret corridor connecting their bedrooms. Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), Sarah’s cousin and a fallen woman, arrives to crash the status quo. She works to push Sarah out of the picture and to raise her own status.
All this infighting between Sarah and Abigail seems to trivialize the world outside the court, but that’s the point. Anne, Sarah and Abigail are perfectly fine with letting their personal issues drive England’s war policy. The strings Sarah and Abigail pull to control the completely hapless men around them are all to one-up each other. Sarah does not even care that her own husband (Mark Gatiss) is put in more danger when she pushes Anne to send more troops to fight France.
Everything about The Favourite works, thanks to a complete disregard for historical accuracy in everything except costuming and settings. Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script is drenched in wit and a sly sense of humor perfectly fitting Lanthimos’ work. Lanthimos also takes a page out of Tony Richardson’s book by rejecting every staid method usually used for costume pictures.
Unlike Richardson’s Tom Jones, The Favourite stands a better chance of never going out of style because Lanthimos’ techniques are so unique. Lanthimos, along with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, is not filming this world through the lens of 2010s cinema, as Richardson made Tom Jones through a ’60s lens. Lanthimos and Ryan are shooting through Lanthimos’ singular vision. He’s the only director who is going to film beautiful establishing shots with a fish-eye camera, or find angles no one else could even think of shooting close-ups from.
None of it matters if you don’t have great performances in front of the screen, and Lanthimos is gifted with three outstanding stars. Olivia Colman’s Best Actress Oscar win seemed like a shock when it happened, but seen a year later, it’s a wonder that anyone thought she wouldn’t win. Her performance as Anne shows an actor giving everything to a role, not holding anything back. Then there are the scenes of Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone biting each others’ heads off, which gives The Favourite some of its most entertaining moments.
Weisz, Stone and Colman’s monumental performances play off well against the hilarious bit parts by the men who should get kudos for understanding their roles as the straight men for them to bounce off of. Nicolas Hoult’s opposition leader Harley is the very definition of a brilliant supporting role, while Joe Alwyn gets a couple hilarious scenes with Stone. It’s satisfying to see a snapshot of history when men were just bumbling fools (as they are today), far outnumbering the women really pulling the strings.
Back when 20th Century Fox still existed, The Favourite was released on Blu-ray in March. There was no 4K release, but the transfer still looks astounding. Extras are sadly lacking though, as they usually are for most studio releases these days. We just get a 3-minute reel of inconsequential deleted scenes and a 22-minute EPK-style making-of called “The Favourite: Unstitching the Costume Drama.” The release also comes with a DVD and a digital copy, and comes packaged with a slipcover.
The Favourite certainly takes advantage of having a playground set during a lesser-known period of European history, when royalty and aristocrats used their populaces as simple playthings. Lanthimos shows how personal feelings push aside rational thought when it comes to politics. His film is perfect, and just begging to be watched again and again. Stone and Weisz might have been nominated for awards as “supporting” actresses (which led to them cancelling each other out so the deserving Regina King could win), but they are as much lead stars as Colman. Each part of this film is a refreshing, delicious treat, made sweeter because there really is no film like it.
Note: Screenshots are from the DVD.