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One sure sign of the fall season in Hollywood is the arrival of the costume period dramas. These are movies that typically don't stand a chance at the box office in the earlier months of the year, but do have a shot of getting notable recognition via award consideration (even if it's only in below-the-line categories). On the surface, Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite may appear to be one of these films.
The Favourite is definitely not one of these films.
Lanthimos has long been speaking his own special cinematic language, and while his latest is an outlier in that it's not based on his own original script, it's a fantastic continuation of his fascinating style. The comedy is black hole-level dark -- primarily driven by acrimony, paranoia, and just plain ol' meanness -- and perfectly juxtaposes the beautiful regal dressings; while also evoking three of the best performances of the year from its central triumvirate.
Set in the early 18th century and inspired by true events, The Favourite begins as Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) sits on the throne of England -- utterly miserable and perpetually ill while her country fights the French in what would be known as the War of the Spanish Succession. Anne's behavior is erratic, if not straight-up mad, and her general melancholy steers her interests towards more eccentric pursuits instead of dealing with the escalating conflict between political parties, and a public on the verge of revolt. What stops the wheels from totally spinning off is the presence of Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), a stern and curt advisor and confidant to the Queen who essentially rules as a puppet master via persuasion. And while there is genuine affection in their relationship, there is also no questioning what role power has in Sarah's feelings, interests and goals.
It is because of her pursuit to maintain her control of Anne that Sarah becomes concerned with the arrival of Abigail (Emma Stone), her younger cousin from a disreputable branch of the family tree. As it turns out, Sarah is right to be worried. Coming from humble beginnings, Abigail has intense ambitions and a knack for social climbing. Thanks to her cleverness and perceptiveness she quickly finds her way in with the Queen -- but it sparks a conflict with Sarah that sees the two compete for Anne's favor and everything that comes with it.
Admittedly, The Favourite is a film you have to be open to in order to really embrace, largely because of the pretty hardcore acid spitting that is featured. This is a movie that has a number of protagonists, but none of them are heroes -- or even really good people. It's a story of bad people doing bad things to other bad people, which is a tone you have to be tuned into. But if you're the kind of person who can laugh as people are maliciously shoved into manure, and servants are screamed at solely for making eye contact, this is definitely your cup of tea.
One thing that is for certain is that Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz are all tuned into the feature's particular brand of viciousness, and it looks like they are having a blast the more spiteful, vindictive, hateful, and miserable The Favourite gets -- all of it performed with a nasty, wonderful glee. Stone in particular has a wonderful balance to play, needing to juggle both excessive levels of demure and ruthlessness, but it culminates as the best performance of her career. As Lady Sarah, Weisz is intense and excellent in a "extend a hand, return a stump" kind of way, and Colman does simply magnificent work with a comedic chemistry equation combining wretchedness and consistent low-level schadenfreude.
While The Favourite's underbelly is far darker and twisted than your typical Victorian period fare, it still maintains the gorgeous aesthetics of the genre, and is stunning even when its characters are at their most rotten. The costume and makeup work is beautifully elegant, not to mention the incredible production design and lighting, and it all serves as a wonderful and fascinating contrast to the tone and approach.
Much like the rest of Yorgos Lanthimos' work, The Favourite is destined to be polarizing, but it's also inherently only going to play to certain tastes. If you've read this review and feel like it's a movie up your alley, I'm betting that it will be. If you feel the opposite, then the opposite will be true. If you're personally in the former category, however, you're definitely in for a treat.