HomeMoviesThe Favourite: The Wild Ride of Oscar Season 2018

The Favourite: The Wild Ride of Oscar Season 2018

The Favourite
Photo Credit: Yorgos Lanthimos

If you’re looking for a classy costume drama dripping with Oscar bait, then look elsewhere — The Favourite is not your movie. Sure, it’s a British period piece, the sort of movie that the Academy usually flocks to. It also allows three different actresses the chance to loudly chew scenery, another trait of an Oscar favorite. In fact, it will probably score many nominations come February. But purists of the genre may want to look to Mary Queen of Scots. This is the wild love child of Elizabeth and All About Eve  — part erotic thriller, part sex comedy, part character study, all fun.

In a story that I can only assume takes some massive creative liberties, The Favourite focuses on Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) in 18th century England. The country is at war, and the queen is plagued with illnesses both physical and mental, but you wouldn’t notice it at the court, where the rich spend their times having sex, wasting money, and racing ducks. The country is really run by Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), an advisor to the Queen who takes advantage of her compromised mental state to make executive decisions. Further complicating matters: Lady Sarah is the Queen’s lover, a secret known to everyone… except Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah’s cousin who recently arrived at court and desperately wants to redeem her family’s disgraced name. Before long, Abigail is vying for a spot in the Queen’s bed too, creating a deadly love triangle.

This is not the first erotic thriller about two women attempting to seduce the same person, but it bears noting that the person they’re trying to seduce is usually a man. The Favourite is a welcome alternative to that cliché. On one level, sure, it’s great to see LGBTQ+ representation in a costume drama, and in a film that allows its queer characters to be anything but virtuous. But, more importantly, this gender swap adds a whole new layer to the drama.

This is really a film about two women trying desperately to grab onto power as a means of survival in a cruel world where men threaten them with sexual violence without hesitation. And the women they’re trying to get power from is forcibly stripped of her femininity, and even her humanity, by those around her—only to still be disrespected by her male inferiors. To think of this movie as some sort of catty battle for power is a fundamental misreading. This is a very dark battle for the smallest modicum of power in a patriarchal world.

But as depressing as that sounds, The Favourite stands out as one of the year’s most entertaining movies. Yorgos Lanthimos’ trademark style is still apparent in almost every frame, but it’s given new life by the wonderful screenplay from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. Showcasing some of the most savage one-liners of the year, this is the sort of film that will require multiple rewatches with subtitles in order to thoroughly appreciate the script. It is a very funny movie, fueled by fantastic monologues and pitch-black humor. At times, the jokes are so shocking and dark that it feels more uncomfortable and sad than humorous, but this all feels like part of the filmmakers’ design. After all, this is an entertaining film about an ugly world.

This ugly world extends to the sets and costumes — and I mean that as a compliment. The production and costume design for The Favourite is a monumental achievement in the way it balances the glamour and the grotesque. While the movie is essentially a chamber piece, every part of the set feels extravagant to an almost comical effect, with the film’s beautiful, naturally-lit cinematography highlighting it in small bursts. Similarly, the costumes (designed by Sandy Powell, a likely Oscar winner) look as impractical as they are beautiful, with characters striving to show off their wealth and social status through silly outfits.

Coleman is constantly donned in puffy dresses, that make her character look hopelessly small and uncomfortable in every frame. Meanwhile, Lady Sarah (and, later, Abigail) are clothed in glamorous outfits that make them look like they’e playing a character even in their real life — the former, for example, resembles a pirate for an extended scene. As for their makeup: it’s cartoonish and perfectly applied. Even the score, which distorts classical pieces of music, adds to the motif: this is a movie about people who are trying to appear classy, but the grotesqueness of their world can’t help but poke through.

But what good is all this luscious scenery if you don’t have actresses to chew through it? Coleman, Weisz, and Stone are having the time of their lives here, and it’s hard to imagine any other trio nailing the complicated tone while still working together so effectively. Every possible combination of the three share chemistry. On their own, Stone is given the meatiest part: she has a couple of brilliantly delivered monologues, and gets the chance to subvert her “America’s Sweetheart” image to great effect. Weisz, meanwhile, has the most subtle part; her job is to react more than instigate the action, but because of this, she’s given some of the best lines. She’s also a brilliant physical comedian: one scene finds her pulling back a curtain, producing one of the year’s funniest visual gags.

But it’s Coleman who really hits it out of the park. She’s brash, loud, and funny throughout, but digs deep into the part and finds a way to empathize with the monstrous character she’s playing. In what is possibly the film’s best scene, she realizes she’s been betrayed by a close friend and the camera rests on her face for a period of time. In just a few frames, she conveys so much sadness and pain that you start to feel bad for her — only to be reminded, mere seconds later, why her character should be feared.

As one final note about the performances: Nicholas Hoult and Joe Alwyn are off to the sidelines for much of the film, but both actors do very nice work that’s worth singling out. Hoult is clearly having fun as a power-hungry member of the court. He kills every single line delivery, and manages to play his character’s childlike outbursts in just the right way: over-the-top, but not unrealistic. Alwyn, meanwhile, has a fascinating, gender-swapped part of his own, as he plays the object of Abigail’s lust. In any other film, this role would be played by a woman but, here, it’s the decidedly masculine Alwyn, who is shot in a state of undress in almost every scene, and defined solely by his sexual prowess. Alwyn is totally game for the subversion, and radiates a sexual energy that’s weirdly seductive, tapping into a screen presence his other roles have failed to afford him.

It will be interesting to see how The Favourite plays once it expands to theaters nationwide. This is a weird film, and Lanthimos is far from a conventional filmmaker. His style is dark and almost intentionally off-putting, and while this is his most accessible film to date, it still feels like a movie made for a niche audience (and, like his other films, the movie suffers from an anti-climatic final scene). But that niche is bound to leave the theater satisfied… this is the breath of fresh air the Oscar season (and the costume drama genre as a whole) desperately needed.

Rating: 9/10

The Favourite is now playing in select theaters.

Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor is the TV editor at The Pop Break, along with being one of the site's awards show experts. When he's not at the nearest movie theater, he can be found bingeing the latest Netflix series, listening to synth pop, or updating his Oscar predictions. A Rutgers grad, he also works in academic publishing. Follow him on Twitter @MattNotMatthew1.


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