Review: ‘The Favourite’ (disorder in the court)

Squeezing an intimate story that could have happened from the details of history.

Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) rules in the early 18th century, but whenever suffering from severe gout or a contrary temperament, her many duties are entrusted to her direct confidant: Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), Duchess of Marlborough. When a downtrodden former aristocrat named Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives at the Queen’s estate, she leverages her relationship as Sarah’s distant cousin to gain employment. With a formal education, an understanding of high society, and a bit of street smarts from losing it all, Abigail influences her way into Anne’s good graces, taking advantage of Sarah’s attention toward the war between England and France. With politicians and land owners vying for scraps of power in the background, frocked frenemies must navigate the shark-infested waters of a patriarchal court to steal or retain power from a queen who grants it on a whim.

Weisz, Colman, and Stone provide a triple-threat of Baroque fatales flirting with the highest stakes imaginable. With literature filled with Sense and Sensibility tales of women looking to be married off, here’s a true story of ladies not only in power but fully capable of defending it. There are still rules, however, and leverage is achieved on how cleverly they are bent, no matter what tradition dictates. A story like this even a few years ago might have seemed extreme and a non-starter, but is a slightly fictionalized court-politics drama where women call the shots worthy of an audience that can appreciate it?

The incredible part of this are the facts: to what’s best understood by historians, the timeline is damnably accurate — this all happened, and that’s the genius of the screenplay. Where history departs (or is at least a bit fuzzy) is the intimacy between the queen and these ladies, relations and relationships exploited by all. Some argue it was possible but unlikely, a grey area open to interpretation. As a grand chess game of attitudes and wits with “favour” as the prize, it’s both more and less complicated than that. For those with the squirm-worthy stomach for decadent aristocracy and boundless ambition, it’s deliciously wicked.

While men are mostly pushed into the background here — they press but keep their distance — there is one standout: Nicholas Hoult’s portrayal of Lord Harley, self-described by the actor as “manipulative and cruel” being the character’s interesting traits. As a player, Harley seems to be the only person willing to step up and play the game while others cower. Wigged and impeccably dandy, Hoult might have been a shoo-in for best supporting actor consideration if he’d had a meatier part; as it is, he wallows in it.

It’s tough to say whose performance is most deserving here; the film introduces Stone as the main character, but there’s an odd consensus that Olivia Colman is somehow the main actress, leaving Weisz and Stone split on supporting actress. This confusion is as bizarre as the movie Carol from a few year’s back, when Cate Blanchett played the title character while Rooney Mara’s main character was inexplicably still “the supporting actress.” That said, no matter who loses on-screen or off, the audience is still the clear winner.

The Favourite is rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language, and the balls on Rachel Weisz in her shooting outfit.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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