Monday, December 24, 2018

The Favourite: A Review (Review #1155)


Power plays, political machinations and ego stroking of weak leaders is nothing new. One merely needs to read the papers or watch television coverage to see that the world of The Favourite is not far removed from today. The decadence and madness of Queen Anne's Court is rendered in terms both hilarious and tragic, a regal All About Eve that wrecks all the lives it touches.

Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is essentially under the thumb of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Sarah pushes Anne around figuratively and literally (Her Majesty uses a wheelchair on occasion). Anne counts on Sarah's friendship to see her through life, and Sarah is about the closest thing to an actual friend she has. Sarah makes no bones about how she uses her influence over Anne to be the the power behind the throne, continuously pushing Anne to continue the War of the Spanish Succession.

Opposing her at Court is Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), the Leader of the Opposition Tory Party. He finds himself continuously flustered in his efforts to stop the war and the massive tax increases Sarah favors. As the Duchess is practically the monarch, with Anne essentially abdicating her authority to her, there is nothing he can do.

Into this comes Abigail (Emma Stone), the poor relation. She is Sarah's cousin who has fallen on hard times and comes to Court to find employment. Sarah, very dismissive and haughty, places her in the kitchen as a scullery maid. A fortuitous event occurs when Anne suffers an attack of gout. Abigail happens to know about herbs and secretly places her concoction on Anne, much to Sarah's displeasure.

Image result for the favouriteAbigail lets it be known she was the one who helped Her Majesty in her time of distress. Anne is taken by Abigail, and it does not help Sarah that she essentially thrusts her poor relation to Anne while she attends matters of state.

Harley sees in Abigail a useful ally to thwart the Malboroughs, but Abigail won't commit. She also wont' commit to the amorous advances of Baron Masham (Joe Alwyn), who would like an affair with her but nothing more. Abigail, however, knows that it would not be to her advantage to be merely Masham's mistress. If she were Lady Masham, however, that would be different. That, however, would be difficult as she has no rank or status.

Soon the two cousins vie for Queen Anne's favor, using whatever weapons are at their disposal. Abigail has stumbled upon a major secret: Anne and Sarah are lovers. With this bit of inside information Abigail sets out to seduce Anne. Sarah, finally realizing the duplicity of her cousin, dismisses her from Court, but Anne has now taken Abigail under her personal protection. As she is the Monarch, Sarah cannot overrule her.

Things come to a head when Abigail uses her status as a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Anne to slip a little something into Sarah's tea. With Sarah out of the way, ending up in a brothel, Abigail gets what she wants: she becomes Anne's favorite and marries Masham, a marriage not of love but opportunity. Sarah now faces Lady Masham, not some maid, and her efforts to blackmail Anne backfire spectacularly.

In the end, Harley finds a friend close enough to Her Majesty to influence her to his way of thinking. Anne dismisses Sarah's loyal Prime Minister Lord Godolphin (James Smith) and appoints Harley to the post. She also declares no increase in property taxes and directs her new Prime Minister to sue for peace.

The Duke and Duchess of Marlborough's fall is complete with accusations of embezzlement, accusations Sarah cannot stop due to Lady Masham controlling the Queen's mail. She stops Sarah's missive asking for forgiveness, which Anne seemed ready to do. Abigail, however, is not victorious, as Anne, now more engaged in state matters, makes it clear she is in control and will not let Abigail go.

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The Favourite has been compared to All About Eve and there is a ring of truth in that. It isn't an exact parallel in that Eve did not have a rival for Margo's affection unless you count Thelma Ritter's Birdie. However, in the machinations Abigail used to eventually supplant her wealthy, haughtier cousin we can see how Abigail echoes Eve's apparently endearing manner for someone who ends up cold-blooded and calculating.

The film is divided into eight chapters: This Mud Stinks, I Do Fear Confusion and Accident, What An Outfit, A Minor Hitch, What If I Should Fall Asleep and Slip Under, Stop Infection, Leave That I Like It and I Dreampt I Stabbed You in the Eye. Each one quotes a line of dialogue from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara's screenplay, a fiery concoction of witty banter and sharp barbs subtle and not. Whether it's the way Abigail and Sarah threaten each other to Sarah's dismissive manner towards Harley (remarking that his mascara is running) down to Anne's startling declaration that she won't dismiss Abigail because "I like it when she puts her tongue inside me", the zingers come at us as fast as the tomatoes a group of decadent courtiers throw at a naked man for fun.

Queen Anne's court is so outlandish that seeing Lord Godolphin refuse to let go of his prize-winning racing duck for fear of its safety seems downright rational here.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos sets scenes so well, using subtext to tell the shift in power from Sarah to Abigail. We see this through Sandy Powell's costumes which show Abigail's ensemble becoming more elegant while Sarah's remain the same. We see this in how in one pheasant shooting Abigail falls, startled when Sarah aims squarely at her but fires a blank and later how Sarah is splashed with blood from one of Abigail's shots.

Lanthimos also uses period music to great effect, the strong organ sounds marking the shifts and warning of dangers.

Image result for the favouriteMuch as been commented on whether Colman, Weizs or Stone are Leading or Supporting roles. It is hard to say for certain given how each gives an exceptional performance. I'm going to say that Colman is the lead given that she is the one Abigail and Sarah are vying for.

Colman's performance is in turns hilarious and heartbreaking. As Anne, she is childlike and childish, coddled and pampered. However, she is also abused, belittled and openly manipulated. Sarah's power is so great that she can tell the Queen she looks like a badger. Anne, who had up to that point been delighted in how she looked, becomes visibly deflated, like someone eager to show herself off only to be told how ugly she was.

Colman is comical but also moving as Queen Anne, a woman who may be moody and mercurial but who also has a deep need for friendship. As she recounts how her pet rabbits are almost substitutes for the seventeen children she lost we feel great empathy for her, the failure to have a child making her almost regress to childhood herself. As she eventually becomes a Queen, part of us can cheer that she moved away from the abusive Sarah while still distressing that Abigail can be just as harsh.

Weisz has had a stellar year with both Disobedience and The Favourite. As Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, her bluntness and coldness is startling. Yet we don't despise her thanks to Weisz's performance. We see Sarah as someone who believes her actions are motivated by a firm sense of being right. The fact that it benefits her personally is just a coincidence. Her haughty manner is almost a positive.

Stone holds her own and does a strong British accent (she is the only American in the main cast). Her Abigail does not come across as calculating from the start. Instead, she seems to have grown so as a survival mechanism, a way to get to a better position. Still, one wonders if there wasn't a bit of scheming early on, and that's a credit to Stone's performance. By the end we know she is, in her own words, capable of much unpleasantness. However, the question is did she turn out this way or was she always like this?

Sadly overlooked are Hough as Harley, forever in garish wigs and lavish makeup but as close to a noble figure in this bonkers Court. He seems genuinely interested in saving Britain from what he feels is an unnecessary war bankrupting the nation, but he too is not afraid to get in the mud of scheming. Alwyn has a smaller role as the perpetually sexually frustrated Masham, but he makes the most of his screen-time.

The Favourite is a comedy about a crazed monarch and the crazier Court. It's also a tragedy about a lonely woman and the false friends she has to accept if she wants any kind of companionship. It's a witty tale of scheming to gain a leader's favor and the power that comes with it.

In so many ways, the bonkers world of The Favourite is not so removed from today.

Anne, Queen of Great Britain:


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