While Queen Anne’s Britain wages war against France, the real battle in The Favourite (★★★) is for the power behind the throne of the 18th-century monarch.
Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), has Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) exactly where she wants her. The queen, feeble of body and somewhat of mind, relies on Sarah to run both the palace and the nation’s affairs, and to keep the queen herself running.
By every indication of the sharp script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, Sarah’s not only eager to fill that role, but quite capable at it. Her husband Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss) leads the Queen’s forces, but at home Sarah is the domineering force as an advisor and the queen’s clandestine lover.
Weisz is the domineering force in the film, shaping Sarah as a slick and ruthless player who can smirk like a winner whether she’s won or lost her latest scuffle. Even when the uber-confident Lady Sarah does suffer blows, her armor doesn’t crater. Weisz keeps her looking like the cat who swallowed the canary then somehow fed it back to her enemy on a silver platter.
Moreover, Weisz has a field day with the acerbic dialogue, locating the uniquely arch frequency that director Yorgos Lanthimos plies here, as he did in last year’s familial power struggle The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Lanthimos expresses his taste for dry wit not just with dialogue and pacing, but with googly, fisheyed angles and winking visual humor, like one hilariously distracted handjob.
The hand in question belongs to Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a servant freshly arrived to Queen Anne’s court, who also happens to be Lady Sarah’s cousin. Abigail catches on quickly that the way to the Queen’s heart, and greater power, leads through or over Sarah, so she plots a course.
Abigail endures the cruelty of men as she rises to a position as one of the ladies of the queen’s bedchamber, but the film doesn’t seem deeply concerned with the gender politics of the day. Anyway, Abigail has her own plaything to toy with, the smitten nobleman Masham (Joe Alwyn). He will prove to be key in her quest to restore her own noble standing.
The film’s sharper commentary comes through its depiction of the aristocracy, a class more passionately devoted to status and vain pursuits like racing prize ducks than they are cognizant of the true wages of war. Somewhere off in Europe, men are dying for queen and country, but everyone in the queen’s court is fighting entirely for themselves. That includes Nicholas Hoult’s ambitious politician Harley, the one character who seems self-aware about the cruel obliviousness of the ruling class.
The bitter undercurrent of class consciousness cuts through the comedy. So too does a sense of pity for Queen Anne, a leader who is so inept yet still wields so much authority. Embodying the monarch’s frenetic mood swings and debilitating ailments, Colman’s performance is a marvel of pitch and physical control. The film provides not enough context for the character, nor detail about what circumstances led to her current addled state, but she’s a fascinating creation nonetheless.
In Colman’s portrayal, something haunting lies beneath Anne’s mercurial surface. Stone’s performance lacks similar depth. Abigail is too baldly deceitful and power-hungry, and just never seems like the worthy adversary to Sarah that the film intends for her to be.
Whatever went down between the real-life Lady Sarah and her fierce rival Abigail, based on how the two women are relayed here, it appears that Sarah would wipe the floor with her country cousin. The film, on the other hand, seems intent to play out their devious plotting and counter-plotting ad nauseam. Lanthimos lays on the piano and harpsichord thickly, as he ushers the story through several chapters of the cousins’ clashes.
Eventually, the film does declare a winner. Although, some in the audience will have given up caring who wins Anne’s favor, because they likely will have chosen a favorite of their own.
The Favourite is rated R, and opens November 30 at Landmark’s E Street and Bethesda Row Cinemas. Visit landmarktheatres.com.
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