Back in 18th century England, there was plenty of war, politics, and drama-but there was also a heavy dose of laughs as well as a classic love triangle between three powerful women.
Abigail (Emma Stone) is a survivor. An aristocrat at heart, she quietly craves power and is persuasive with men and women alike. Wherever she ends up, things may not start in her favor, but she finds a way to keep her head up and tilt the odds in her favor.
When she gets a job as as a servant to Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and immediately butts heads with the majesty’s second in command, Lady Sarah ( Rachel Weisz), Abigail finds herself standing in front of a unique opportunity. Sarah governs the land that the Queen occupies on her throne, and they have a tight and unique relationship. Abigail comes into the middle of that.
Go ahead and try to guess what may happen in director Yorgan Lanthimos’ latest film, The Favourite, and you will probably be wrong. While there are heavy aspects to this true story, the director and screenwriting duo Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara keep things light and never hesitate to add oddball comedy to a historical piece. There is a dry wit here that reminded me of an earlier 2018 delight, The Death of Stalin. Dark comedies about real life people that plays around with the facts and our minds at the same time.
A deep power struggle was developing between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill, which was kept in check by a delegation of duties that left the war and politics up to Sarah and the end-all decision-making up to the Queen. A fragile alliance that was bound to snap was only sped up by the arrival of Stone’s servant. Noisy and observant by trade, Abigail couldn’t help but pry her way into the controversy while slaying the curious minds of Harley (Nicholas Houdt) and Masham (Joe Alwyn, also in Boy Erased) at the same time.
Instead of taking a serious route to the erotic and deceptive affair, Lanthimos undercuts the entire ordeal with humor. Who knows how much of this is actually true? It may be more true than you’d like to know, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Is it any good? I laughed more than a handful of times and didn’t feel like my time was wasted, but I wasn’t blown away by this film. With all the awards love coming in for it, I am shaking my head in puzzlement. Before I watched it, I read critics all over the globe raving about it and pledging that it was some kind of punk rock historical epic. I got a whiff of that description, but it paled in comparison to the overall oddball comedy, slow pacing, and uneven story that was delivered to my doorstep.
You don’t care about either Sarah or Abigail, but also can’t get behind Anne’s choices too much either. Left with no one to really like, you watch this like a startled neighbor who just stumbled into their crazy neighbor’s Halloween party. You nod, laugh a little, and see yourself out without asking for any leftovers or a invitation to the next get-together.
It doesn’t help that seeing Lanthimos’ name on the director’s chair doesn’t inspire much ambition from me. The Colin Farrell-Nicole Kidman drama he put out last year, The Killing of The Sacred Deer, was a wretched experience and landed on my top 5 worst films list. Akin to a stomach cramp, the film didn’t do anything for me. The same tone-deaf overtone is felt here, and dampens the few good moments that are scattered about The Favourite.
The actors put in solid work, especially Stone. You don’t know what to think about Abigail, and there’s no way you can trust her. However, she keeps your feelings and interest level as she tears her way through the Queen’s home and life. The inhibition with your regard to Abigail only exists due to the skill that Stone shows in conveying the right amount of emotion, zeal, and cunning persuasion.
Weisz plays the heel well, and leans into the meaner aspects of Sarah’s reign. She doesn’t know what to make of Abigail either, but feels like every move she makes is the wrong one. Colman seems to be having the most fun as a Queen out of her wits but in no rush to leave the party. There’s something to be said about serious actresses keeping you guessing.
It’s the acting that makes The Favourite something to desire. It lifts up the uneven tone of Lanthimos’ take on the corrupting aspect of power in the 18th century royalty zone of Queens and Kings, and helps the humor land when it does.
This film will probably be nominated for many awards. Critics will applaud it for being a hoot and something different. For my money, it tried too hard and came off as a fine way to kill two hours, but nothing worth shouting in the street about.
I enjoyed its company, but I won’t offer it a room in my head. The Favourite may be the most overrated film of the year.