4 out of 4 stars
Mention the phrase “period piece” to the average moviegoer and most will cringe with glazed eyes. Lengthen it to “Historical British period piece,” and they’ll leave a vapor trail in their wake. Films — don’t dare call them “movies” — by the Merchant/Ivory team and those like them are gorgeous to look at and impeccably acted, and some are very good, but all of them are pompous, stuffy and way too serious.
“The Favourite” — while coming with all of the typical period piece trappings — men wearing mascara and sporting powdered wigs, ladies in tight bodices — is anything but uptight and furrow-browed. Imagine Quentin Tarantino remaking Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” and replacing the title character with three women possessing a lot of power they don’t quite know how to manage with lots of profanity and insults that make those from Don Rickles come off as flowery, fawning compliments by comparison.
Some of the film’s few detractors have taken issue with its historical accuracy but, in quoting Oliver Stone responding to similar complaints regarding his “JFK,” “it’s not a documentary.” While there is a great deal of artistic license taken here, the main plot and all of the behaviors of the key characters stick close to the facts, or at least the facts as recorded in the early 18th century.
By all accounts, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) was an unremarkable monarch who reigned over the British Empire for a relatively scant amount of time (1702-1714) and who was obese, perpetually ill, skittish and paranoid, and suffered through many failed pregnancies. In the movie, it is her battle with gout that starts the dominoes tumbling and creates a competition for her attention between estranged cousins Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Hill Masham (Emma Stone).
“The Favourite” opens with Sarah, a distant relative to Winston Churchill, firmly entrenched as Anne’s favourite — an advisor to the queen who, in this case, determines several matters of state with unchecked and mostly unquestioned authority. She is the Dick Cheney to Anne’s George W. Bush. Beyond implied, Sarah is also the queen’s secret lesbian lover. Her principal nemesis is loyal opposition leader Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), whose main objective is ending a costly ongoing war with France.
A woman with an unenviable past (her father “lost” her in a card game), the ever-plucky Abigail shows up at the royal palace uninvited, counting on her blood connection to Sarah to be her “in.” It barely works, but once Abigail concocts a salve made from wild-grown herbs that cures the queen’s gout, she’s immediately lifted from servant status to a “favourite on deck” position.
All of the above exposition takes place in the movie’s first half hour, which superbly sets up a final 90-minute race to a finish line the majority of viewers will not want to cross. The jockeying for attention, status and influence is a flesh and blood, winner-take-all chess match where the adage “all is fair in love and war” takes on a new definition. It is political gamesmanship at its most vicious and unbridled, and if you appreciate black humor on any level, you will be unable to go more than five minutes at any point without laughing out loud with considerable volume.
Starting in 1998 with Deborah Davis’ original script, the screenplay — with future additions and adjustments by Tony McNamara — came to the attention of Greek director Yargos Lanthimos, whose two most recent efforts, “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” also included themes of power, struggle and blackmail but were too chilly and detached for most audiences and some critics — including me.
“The Favourite” is the first production Lanthimos hasn’t had a hand in writing, and it has made him a better filmmaker, or at least one with a clearer eye and a more focused vision. Every single second of “The Favourite” is crucial to the overall success of the narrative as a whole, and there is not a wasted frame to be found. In addition to being superbly executed art and craft, this is a movie with immensely broad appeal to audiences beyond art-house regulars. Try getting through the slow-motion “Saturday Night Fever”-inspired dance sequence without doubling over while losing your breath in the process.
Already bestowed with multiple critics’ groups accolades (including a record five from the Atlanta Film Critics Circle), “The Favourite” will be a major contender in every industry awards race over the next three months. While Colman is the studio recommended lead, Stone could also be considered as such, with Weisz and Hoult as virtual shoo-in nominees in supporting races. Direction, writing, sound, costume and set design nominations are also likely.
By the easiest of all definitions, “The Favourite” is a historical period piece, but please don’t let that sway you in the least or keep you at bay. It’s a raucous, bawdy comedy with shark teeth grip and palace intrigue that takes no prisoners which you will immediately want to watch over and over again and again. See it on the biggest screen you can possibly find. It is arguably the best movie (not film!) of 2018.