I want to make one thing absolutely clear before we begin: The Favourite is not just another quaint period drama about a female monarch. This film has claws, teeth and the guts to scratch and bite with them too. This, coupled with electrifying performances from Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, makes for a wildly entertaining, audacious and unapologetically feminist watch.
The trailers for the film were, for the most part, intentionally vague about the fact that The Favourite is, in actuality, a loose screen adaption of the (alleged) real-life love triangle between Queen Anne, Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hill. Although the element of competition for the Queen’s favour is clear from a cursory glance, you have to actually go and watch the film to fully realise that the Queen’s favour was just as sexual and romantic as it was political. So, if you missed that this movie is as unabashedly queer as it is funny, you’re forgiven – just make sure that you go and see it in cinemas asap to remedy that mistake.
For the sake of avoiding spoilers, the basic premise of the film is this: Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is a psychologically complex monarch who, after being “stalked by tragedy”, leaves the running of the country to her secret lover Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Then comes along chambermaid Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), who upsets the romantic and political dynamic between Queen Anne and Sarah, and sparks the driving point of the narrative: the competition to be the Queen’s sexual, romantic and political favourite. Coupled with interludes of men acting and looking ridiculous, The Favourite fails to fall into any traps of pandering to patriarchal sensibilities of period dramas gone by.
Directed by the wonderfully weird Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster), this historical comedy-drama allows its three stars to shine in a way that’s still so shamefully rare for female actors: the mighty Olivia Colman in particular embodies the tragic-yet-comic Queen Anne with such gumption and sympathy that if she doesn’t win Best Actress at the Oscars I’ll riot. Whether she’s shouting at lowly court aides for looking at her, skulking off to her bedchambers miserably after being told she looks like a badger, or saying “I like it when she puts her tongue inside me” with such casual conviction that I nearly fell off my seat, Colman deserved every inch of that Golden Globe she won this Sunday. Queen Anne easily could have been an unforgiving and unsympathetic character in less capable hands – she’s petulant, incompetent and rude. Thanks to Lanthimos and Colman, though, she might just be the most relatable character of the century. She’s depressed, she’s overweight, she has a wicked sense of humour and she calls her seventeen pet rabbits “the children” – who can’t relate to that when it’s all embodied by Olivia Colman?
Just as deserving of the nomination as Colman was the win, Rachel Weisz is at her absolute best as Sarah Churchill. Truly, I didn’t know that I needed Rachel Weisz in various traditionally “butch” outfits playing shooting games, ridiculing men and, in one scene, pushing Queen Anne against a bed by her throat until I watched it, but it’s not something I’ll forget in a hurry. Just as with Olivia Colman’s mastery of the insecure Anne, Weisz embodied the confidence and unapologetic queerness of Sarah Churchill so convincingly that I think this may be the role she was born to play. It’s hard to tell who enjoyed politically dominating men and sexually dominating Queen Anne more – Rachel Weisz or Sarah Churchill. Probably both, which speaks to Weisz’s skill as an actress.
Now we have Emma Stone, whose casting may have caused a few eyebrow raises initially due to her status as a megawatt American star and The Favourite’s status as a Very British Film. But, as always with Stone, she went above and beyond and did complete justice to a character that we’ve never really seen anything quite like before. In fact, Stone’s performance might be the most quietly impressive of the lot; Abigail did, after all, go from a gold-hearted, downtrodden and unassuming chambermaid to a quick-witted, manipulative operator that would be confident enough to abuse one of Queen Anne’s children (rabbit). The progression could have seemed too fast to be convincing, but Emma Stone’s microexpressions left me with little doubt that this moral transformation of Abigail was absolutely sincere.
With three astonishingly incredible performances from three actresses at the top of their game, The Favourite could have been a success without the added bonus of a witty, unusual script and captivating visuals. Still, it’s clear with every frame that Lanthimos is a perfectionist, and every scene in the film exudes with purpose, whether the scene is silly or serious. The result is, of course, The Favourite being perfection. Best of all, it’s perfection that – although I think all audiences will genuinely enjoy – is unapologetically catered towards female audiences in a way that feels authentic.
So, in case I haven’t been clear enough, a trip to the cinema to see The Favourite is something I can’t recommend highly enough. It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before, and like nothing we might ever see again.