Review: ‘The Favorite’ surprises with a fresh take on period drama

by Lex Kang | 9/18/18 2:10am

Walking into Yorgos Lanthimos’s film “The Favourite,” a film that is a part of this year’s Telluride at Dartmouth film series, I knew very little other than that the film was a historical drama featuring actress Emma Stone. I expected a typical historical drama, overplaying archaic customs to pander to the audience’s desire to get a glimpse of what we, in the 21st century, romanticize Europe to have been like hundreds of years ago: exaggerated British accents, dainty china sets and constant tea parties, dabbing at tears with handkerchiefs and the like.

I have never been more wrong.

I loved the film for multiple reasons, but the very first thing that captured my attention was how the film refreshingly portrayed England in the 1700s, under Queen Anne’s rule, in a humanistic and realistic way. I have preconceived notions about this time period in Britain, particularly among the nobility and the royal court where the film is entirely set. Chivalry, propriety and formality are the first things that come to mind. The stiff, almost sterile, customs I associate with royalty at the time is what disconnects us from that era and makes history and historical dramas such a droll for many. But “The Favourite” doesn’t hesitate to display the funny, the crude and the violent, a daring move for the genre, and capitalizes on this to create characters who might initially seem eons away from our time period, but are suddenly approachable and relatable. This leads to a modern, digestible and approachable film out of a niche genre. Abigail, portrayed by Emma Stone, is a former lady who enters the court as a maid after her family’s economic fall, curses constantly (along with all the other characters), wrestles and punches her suitor to escalate sexual tension and can be seen making faces and cringing after her own awkward moments. Harley, portrayed by Nicholas Hoult, doesn’t hesitate to use physical force and threats to women. The politicians in Queen Anne’s court can be seen engaging in witty and brazen banter, racing geese and drinking rather than being concerned about the ongoing war with France.

However, the most shocking character depiction in the film is Queen Anne herself, expertly portrayed by Olivia Colman. The queen, who grows weaker both physically and mentally throughout the film, is constantly used and manipulated for the political and personal agenda of those around her, including Abigail, her cousin and rival Lady Marlborough (portrayed by Rachel Weisz) and literally everyone in her court. The queen’s intense vulnerability and the pain of being in her position are highlighted by the way the film explores her physical ailments, such as her leg, a stroke and a weak stomach that prevents her from indulging in the sweets she loves. It’s also apparent in her childlike innocence and naïveté, which is illustrated by her inability to do her own makeup or confidently speak to her parliament, and her past — the pain of 17 lost children is made evident by the queen’s obsession with her 17 pet rabbits. It is rare to see royalty depicted as something other than authoritative and bratty, manipulative and cutthroat, or mad. She is lovable but broken and relies on her inner child to help her survive the isolation of her royal personhood. The audience laughs at her juvenile mistakes and dispositions, and feels with her when she cries out as she realizes that she has been betrayed by the few that she truly believed loved her. By the end of the movie, it is made fairly evident that despite her efforts to deny the painful truth, the queen realizes that she is dying, that she has been used by those she trusted and that she is completely alone in her own palace. Because of the extent to which the queen’s spirit breaks and the film’s ability to make audiences love her character for her innocence, “The Favourite” manages to skillfully balance the suspense of cutthroat political scheming and humor in the witty dialogue with the tragedy and pain from the perspective of the lonely queen.

“The Favourite” has more to offer besides plot that makes its two-hour running time fly by: eye-catching costumes and sets, fast-paced, powerful dialogue combined with subtle facial expressions that bring each character to life and, notably, music. The film used exclusively classical music in its soundtrack, and each piece was selected to masterfully control the tone of every single scene. When combined with particularly treacherous scenes, the music also starkly juxtaposes the classy and elegant reputation of the nobility with their heartless and manipulative reality. However, despite other signs of fine craftsmanship, nothing in the film outshines the rich and realistic character development and Colman’s chilling performance. Just for Queen Anne and Queen Anne alone, I would watch this film time and time again.