To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, if you want to test a person’s character, give them power. That maxim is fully on display in “The Favourite,” an Oscar hopeful starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, as two women vie for the attention of Anne, Queen of Great Britain.
Set in the early 18th century, “The Favourite” begins as England, under the rule of Queen Anne (Coleman), is at war with France. A clueless and vain monarch stricken with gout from gorging on chocolate and cheese, the Queen is haughty in the style of, “Look at me! How dare you look at me!”
The real power behind the throne ismovie notes the Queen’s close friend and confidant Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Weisz). She’s a stern figure equally at home pampering the Queen or ordering a maid to be whipped for any minor transgression.
Life at the castle is a decadent push-and-pull for favour between those who want the Queen to end the war, like Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (Nicholas Hoult), and those who feel the battle must continue. The battle for power becomes more intense when Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), Lady Marlborough’s cousin and fallen gentry whose father gambled her away in a card game, arrives looking for a job. Put to work as a maid she quickly moves up the ranks, befriending the Queen and aggressively pushing Lady Marlborough to the fringes. “As it turns out I am capable of much unpleasantness,” Abigail snorts.
Broken into chapters like “What An Outfit“ and “A Minor Hitch,“ the film is a wickedly nasty look at the inner workings of a personal coup d’etat. Smartly written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, it brims with court gossip, quotable lines—“If you do not get out I will start kicking you and I will not stop,” sneers Marlborough.—and machinations enough to make Machiavelli green with envy.
Bringing the intrigue to vivid life are the three leads. At the top of the pyramid is Coleman as Queen Anne. Insecurity and imperiousness are the toxic ingredients that fuel her childlike behaviour. Whether she is stuffing her face to the point of vomiting, faking a seizure at Parliament or indulging in her secret desires, she is unpredictable, ridiculous and, ultimately a sad character. Coleman embraces it all, delivering a beautiful, unsubtle performance.
As Lady Marlborough Weisz is cunning and kind, a power player who knows when to hold ‘em, knows when to fold ‘em. She’s icy hot, calm and collected but quick to temper when threatened. Weisz has rarely been this collected on screen, delivering complex dialogue with panache.
As a woman who admits, “I’m on my side, always,” Stone has the greatest range. From scullery maid to titled Lady her character travels the furthest distance and is capable of the greatest villainy.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos has made a strange and beautiful movie, one that has the twilight zone feel of his other films “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” They all feel like real life, but tilted by 180 degrees. With “The Favourite” he has made a revisionist history that comments not only on personal politics but also how political power is open to the whims of who holds it.