Review: The Favourite

The recent death of Albert Finney revived interest in the movie that first made him a star in the U.S. (he was already a sensation in the U.K. thanks to Karel Reisz). Tom Jones attempted to obliterate the stuffy British costume drama with its focus on the low stakes bawdiness that was prevalent in 18th century literature but theretofore ignored by the movies. Whatever its worth as art, it paved the way for a more nuanced, naturalistic take on the historical record. The Favourite is a natural outcome of that legacy, and in the hands of provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos it goes beyond earthy effrontery. Like Lanthimos’s other works, it is sublimely ridiculous, and thanks to a witty script (not written by Lanthimos, but rather by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara) that ridiculousness for once has a firm narrative footing.

Supposedly based on some kind of truth, The Favourite invades the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), who, reigning over England in the early 18th century, has problems with affairs of state that she isn’t expected to understand, mainly because she’s a woman, but also because of her wayward personality as a result of more than a dozen miscarriages. Constitutionally unwell and in possession of a temperament that’s wildly unstable, she relies on her lady-in-waiting and part-time lover, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who not only arranges her toilet and keeps her on as even a keel as possible, but mostly dictates affairs of state, including an impending war with the French. Into this cozy nest steps Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), whose own fortunes have been squandered by her father’s gambling habits. She comes to Kensington Palace a “fallen woman” to take employment with the household staff under Sarah’s direction, and the first thing she does when leaving the stage carriage is fall into a deep puddle of muck.

There’s nowhere to go but up, and the rest of the film is essentially the story of Abigail’s resentment-fueled rise in the palace, propelled by her competitive nature, prodded ever upwards in reaction to Sarah’s haughty attitude. As a caustic romantic triangle, all of whose points are female, the story necessarily trades in certain stereotypes associated with cats and claws and using feminine wiles to get ahead. Abigail eventually worms her way into the queeen’s good graces after sussing out Sarah’s Achilles Heel, which is that nobody seems to know about their affair, but rather than expose it, she studies its ramifications and finds ways to make it work for her. First, she marries up by luring the scheming, self-important Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), who fancies himself a statesman of some discernment, into her plan without his knowing. Buoyed in society by the match, she gains access to the queen and quickly steals her affections, but, of course, Sarah is not one to mess with.

What’s refreshing about The Favourite is that its cynical take on romantic manipulation for social betterment is balanced with a close study of historical exigencies that deepens not only the theme but the comedy, as well. The dialogue is almost too deliciously baroque for its own good, but it’s used in situations, like the one where Abigail pleasures Robert in the most hilariously distracted way, that really take advantage of Lanthimos’s talent for weirdness. Henry Fielding, and Albert Finney, would no doubt approve.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

The Favourite home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

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