An expression that I enjoy using is “game recognizes game”, and in no other movie this year is that expression as relevant or applicable as The Favourite. The Yorgos Lanthimos-directed movie truly understands the social situation of right now and the role of gender politics in the year 20..wait the film is set in the early 1700’s?
It’s a film that is driven by its performances, and the trio of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and yes, Emma Stone, (normally Americans playing Brits doesn’t work for me, and yet this time it does), are all spectacular (Weisz perhaps even better than she is in Lanthimos’ English-language breakthrough The Lobster). In fact, the reason that the film is so successful is that there is a bluntness in Lanthimos’ work that seems to want to alienate a segment of the audience, and in working from adapted material (both in terms of screenwriting and in historical realism), the meanness and coldness of the previous efforts have dissipated slightly. Don’t get me wrong, The Favourite is still an uncomfortable watch, but the blunted edges of, say, 17 rabbits or a totally imagined subtext (or was it imagined?) makes The Favourite a rousing work of art.
The costumes (by old pro Sandy Powell) are gorgeous, the setting is magnificent, and the visuals well-chosen and delivered. The intertitles and the twee aspect becomes a little grating, but overall it feels unfair to slight a film for attempting to have too much style rather than too little. The competition between cousins Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham (Weisz and Stone) is delectable, as the remarks and insults and asides become more and more of a shoving match. In the centre of it all is the performance of Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, perfectly mastering feebleness and yet clinging to a shred or two of dignity at the same time. I can’t wait to see what Colman next brings to the role of Queen Elizabeth on The Crown, as her Anne is going to be tough to top. But what is most interesting is trying to figure out if the actual events in the movie are historical record (clearly some of them have been fabricated), but in a sense it doesn’t matter, because the spirit of competition and the game recognizing game implies that in the 1700’s, 2000’s, 2300’s, the game is the same and the players are still playing.
Stay for the very last shot of the film, a mysterious expression that lingers long afterward.