The Favourite (R21)
Starring Olivia Coleman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Set in the early 18th Century English royal palace, this period comedy-drama is about the physically frail and emotionally frayed Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman in a Golden Globe Best Actress -winning role) whose aide and secret lover Lady Sarah Marlborough (played with steely rancor by Rachel Weisz) takes full advantage of the former’s emotional dependence on her to power-play her way in court and national affairs.
Enters the latter’s hard-luck cousin Abigail (Emma Stone in a juicy role), who comes to seek employment in the royal household and eventually rises to the ranks to threaten Sarah’s stronghold on the Queen.
The Favourite recalls the 1950 Bette Davis classic All About Eve wherein a protégé/understudy ends up usurping the position of the very mentor who hired and groomed her. Except that in this case, our sympathy lies with Eve — that’s Stone’s Abigail in this story.
Seen in contrast to the coldly manipulative Sarah and the mess of a monarch who is no better than a spoilt, impetuous child, Abigail is the heart-tugging underling with a tragic family background and a wishful determination to improve her lot in life — she even steals books from the Queen’s library to read to further herself.
But unlike the Bette Davis character who merely snarls and bitches about her usurper in the ̕50s tale, the ruthless Sarah here is not about to simply sit back and allow Abigail to replace her Queen-riding breeches, and so the wicked plot goes….
Director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of the Sacred Deer) frames this femme fatale blitzkrieg (based on historical recollections but with admitted artistic liberty) with a satirical tragicomic conscience.
There is little doubt that the English court is rife with ludicrous eccentricities (duck-racing being a primetime indoor-sport) as well as surreptitious schemes done in the name of state interest.
With the sovereign head of this contingent being a disinterested, neurotic and petty queen, the moral decadence throughout is as stiff-upper-lip as it is flagrant. Lanthimos’ characteristic use of the wide-angle lens at times evokes a shunned grandeur and with dream-like incredulousness.
But he does have fun with the proceedings (the dance scene, featuring Nicholas Hoult as statesman Robert Harley, is a highlight), what with three superb leading ladies in the camera’s eye to boot.
His film’s abstract finale — lingering close-ups of Anne’s vindictiveness and Abigail’s lip-biting submission dissolving into a cluster of rabbits (Anne’s pets) is a powerful bitter-pill imagery on mankind’s voracious appetite for power — a bullying, soul-shattering game with no winners in that listless pack who “[expletive] like rabbits” in propagation of their own sad existence.
You could say The Favourite is a chilling statement on existential horror — muted horror being Lanthimos’ specialty. This is why The Favourite, another of those delicious royal-family scandals, feels so Lanthimos-crowned. (****)
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Photo: 20th Century Fox