The Pitch: When Abigail (Emma Stone) begins her life in the household of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), she does so covered in mud. It’s an indicator of her status and of the unrepentant cruelties of the world — shoved from a carriage, she lands in a puddle; when shown to a room to change, she instead finds her cousin Sarah (Rachel Weisz), the head (and purse) of the royal household, ready to judge and condemn. ‘Young innocent finds herself cruelly used by the great and grand’ is not an unfamiliar story (see also: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Mean Girls). What’s different here is that both the women and the mud are far more than they seem. Abigail is cunning. Sarah feels deeply. Anne contains multitudes. The puddle is mostly shit, and the shit is mostly human.
Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough sits firm in Queen Anne’s good graces, an indispensable companion and manager who has accrued a great deal of power and influence over the Queen, her court and household, and parliament itself. She’s a political animal who uses her gender, her appearance, her relationships, and the follies of others to guide the Queen’s hand in matters of war and state. While invaluable to the queen, it’s equally as clear that Her Royal Highness has begun to feel the strings that Sarah so deftly tugs, and the strain is beginning to show. It’s into this landscape that Abigail strides, covered in shit in more ways that one but eager to climb out of the mud. She makes herself useful to Sarah by tending to the Queen’s ailments with herbs on a cold, damp day, and then with a tiny cough makes clear the scope of her ambition. “I beg your pardon, your majesty,” she says, casually mentioning how exactly she caught her cold. The gauntlet has been thrown, and the combatants are armed to the teeth.
Don’t Let the Corsets Fool You: To call Yorgos Lanthimos’ alternately thrilling, profound, and savagely funny The Favourite a comedy of manners is to miss the point entirely. It’s an understandable mistake: there are sweeping skirts, tea services, and plenty of waspish waists, but the waists can’t exclusively claim that descriptor. These people, and the compelling female trio at the film’s center in particular, possess sharp tongues and quick minds. They struggle for control, security, independence, and happiness. When provoked, they sting. The manners are a joke, an affectation. It’s not a comedy of manners. It’s an ill-mannered comedy, a comedy in which curtsies can be sardonic or even cruel. And more importantly, it’s a comedy about formidable and sometimes foolish women in a world of men, regarded as hurdles to be surmounted, tools to be used, pawns to be moved, or territory to be conquered. In such a world, of course their considerable talents would be aimed at each other. In such a world, of course they would fight most mordantly for control of the only corners they can call their own.
In short, Jane Austen would probably love The Favourite, but she’d be shocked, shocked, by the disorderly conduct found therein.
On the Other Hand, the Clothes Sure Are Pretty: Sandy Powell is very good at her job. The three-time Oscar winner’s credits run the gamut from The Wolf of Wall Street to The Young Victoria, from Carol to the live-action Cinderella. She has, to use an internet parlance, the range. And she shows it here. It’s easy to consider the costumes as a frivolous component, even of costume dramas (or costume black comedies). But Powell’s designs, which always help filmmakers to tell their stories, play an even more prominent role here. The costumes of Sarah in particular play an important role—watch for the trappings of menswear, for an increase or decrease in opulence, for traditionally romantic elements, and for when her clothing seems to be in sync with that of other characters, and Anne in particular. It’s another stellar design from one of the great talents of the field.
These Women Are Great, Let’s Pit Them Against Each Other: It’s just a wee bit ironic that the excellence of The Favourite seems likely to guarantee that Colman, Stone, and Weisz — each of whom gives a remarkable performance — will be compared and ranked ad nauseam. So let’s say upfront that these three actors command your attention, that they’re great alone but even better together, and that thanks to the strength and unbelievable cleverness and strangeness of Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s screenplay, each has a unique set of challenges and a distinct energy and language with which to play. But as the conversation will happen with or without this critic chiming in, let’s get it over with and say that out of three terrific performances, it’s Olivia Colman who dazzles most. Given the Herculean task of making Anne a figure worthy of both derision and sympathy, a woman who can both be easily fooled and whose awareness and intelligence are palpable, and a character who rarely drives but is still the source of all the action, Colman soars. Lanthimos’s daring ending — only unsurprising in that it’s the type of bold leap one expects of this particular director — would fall flat on its face without Colman’s gutsy, thoughtful, wildly funny and equally heartbreaking work. In a film of great performances, it’s the standout.
That said, ask tomorrow which performance is the movie’s best, and the answer may be different. It’s that kind of film, and they are those kinds of actors.
About That Ending: Never in the history of art has the sound that rabbits make mattered so much to one’s intellectual and emotional understanding of a particular creation. Take a seat, Watership Down, The Favourite is here to claim your crown.
But it’s not only the sound that makes the film’s final moments so potent. Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan make frequent use of disorienting elements, in particular fish-eye lenses, that serve the double purpose of allowing one to see into every corner of these opulent spaces (a perspective far less grand that one usually sees in films set in castles and palaces) and of keeping the viewer unsteady. From what vantage are we watching these events? How reliable is our information? Is our presence welcome? These are questions that percolate throughout the film, but which rise most pressingly to the surface in the last scene. It’s a reminder that there are always many ways of seeing a particular person, or relationship, or event; a visual demonstration of the fact that endings are rarely happy or sad, and victories almost never complete.
The Verdict: If Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters got hammered, inadvertently traveled in time, and had nary a single fuck left to give, The Favourite is the movie they might create together. Should you choose to see this as a comedy and nothing but, you’ll be mightily entertained. But pull any thread — power, love, gender, virtue, morality — and there’s something more to find and consider. Like the women who populate its halls, it might be easy to see The Favourite as only one thing, to reduce it to one quality, but it contains multitudes. And like its three central characters, you underestimate it at your peril.
Where’s It Playing?: The Favourite is out now in New York and Los Angeles, and will expand nationwide in the coming weeks.