Review: The Favourite (2019) – Playing For Keeps

emma-stone-olivia-colman-the-favourite
Olivia Colman and Emma Stone in The Favourite

Back in 2015 I caught The Lobster and was introduced to the surreal storytelling of Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek director behind this years The Favourite, an equally bizarre offering that re-imagines the court of queen Anne as an adventurous, all eyes watching soap opera. Hidden within is a discussion of power, love and loss while trying its best to play for laughs, something it isn’t quite as adept at. Then again, the fact that this historical setting achieves any laughs at all is impressive none the less.

Telling the story of the competition for queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman) favour by Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and her newly arrived cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). What follows is a Machiavellian game with moves and counter moves between the two, although it may well be Anne who is playing them all despite their constant attempts to end up on top, both figuratively and literally.

Lanthimos’ signature style here allows for an oftentimes satirical gaze that highlights the sheer lunacy of the situation these three women find themselves in but it also acknowledges this double standard between men and women as the ones that hold the power have to pretend they don’t in front of a group of egotistical men who Lanthimos makes dull and pretentious to highlight the light and dynamism of his leads. Unfortunately for me most of the satire didn’t feel as biting or significant as it should have been.

The drama here while compelling when it takes the time to dive into the psyche of the characters doesn’t translate to a whole tale. In fact the film feels light yet bloated at the same time. Extended party scenes or moments in parliament linger for far too long while the moments of bickering between these women do not have enough workable comedy to satisfy. There may be moments of genuine hilarity with some scathing barbs that land with aplomb, Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara’s script is so overstuffed it feels like they just threw everything in and wished some of it stuck. The dialogue flows out and Lanthimos’ cast are more than up to the task but I only wish at times it was sharper instead of quite so rapid.

Ironically, the main issue here was with its scattered pacing with everyone clearly having tonnes of fun rattling off these quick fire lines but when the film sinks into long drawn out shots of the grounds of court or people walking down hallways under the gaze of a fish eyed lens, the film loses all sense of urgency. Lanthimos seems to want viewers in a perpetual state of unease as to not ruin the surprises hidden within but in doing so he loses where the story is in the moment.

However, hidden away in the inner workings of court is the idea that everyone is watching, a juicy yet nagging thought that infects every scene with the wide-angle shots and CCTV-esque long shots making Anne’s palace seem almost like the Big Brother house, a place of gossip, sex and hidden games. The fact that people may be watching might well be half the fun here.

With lofty goals in mind, The Favourite delves into many different dark recesses while discussing the fluidity of morality, loyalty, power and family. In fact, even these characters rarely know their own intentions until they are forced upon them. This Carpe Diem attitude fits nicely with the madness of Anne’s court but the listless nature of telling such a story means a true look at the nature of these women’s greed never really comes to the boil. That’s not to say that there isn’t much to be said about the debilitating effect of loss as Anne struggles with the memory of what she never had.

Colman is a delight in this regard, transitioning constantly throughout from childish glee to spiteful malice to everything that comes in between. It’s a tour de force performance, one that has already won her a Golden Globe. Weisz and Stone on the other hand are never better when sparring with each other, something that holds them back. Despite their vicious infighting being delightful to watch, it traps them where The Favourite flounders, making jokes to avoid any real kind of emotion. Their moments alone have more meat to them but they are few and far between.

Davis and McNamara have constructed a script worthy of praise despite its faults as without pushing they have constructed a tale about primitive desire within a story about calculated power players. These women think they know what they want and how to get it but life is fickle, desires change, power shifts and we all must try to hold on and roll with the punches, a lesson Lanthimos seems to intimate in an ending that, if anything, suggests we get what we deserve, not what we want.

If anything, The Favourite is a story of how the decisions we make are shaped by our pasts and while we might fear the idea of repeating our mistakes, leaning into that notion might just be what leads us down that path. That’s what makes it a shame that such a prescient film squanders its potential for genuine drama amid all the staged nonsense.

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