This review was first published February 2019, in The Weekend Argus, Cape Town. The American Film Institute ranked The Favorite as one of the top ten films of 2018 and @TheCapeRobyn agrees with that rating. It is a stand-out film.
Yorgos Lanthimos directed this 2018 multi-award winning film. The Favorite scooped seven awards at the BAFTAs – including outstanding British film, original screenplay (Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara), leading actress (Olivia Colman), supporting actress (Rachel Weisz) and cinematography (Robbie Ryan). Colman won an Oscar – Best Actress. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards so that was a disappointment. In our opinion, it deserved more but anyway, that is how awards go.
It is an astounding film: a thrilling take on royal period drama: shaken, ripped and served up for contemporary audience. If you get the opportunity to catch it on a big screen, grab it. It is a big film visually and needs a large format to appreciate the cinematography.
Set in the early 18th century, The Favorite tracks the real-life interactions between cousins – Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) who compete to be besties of Queen Anne. Anne was queen of England, Ireland and Scotland between March 1702 and May 1707. In May 1707, two of her queen-doms –England and Scotland, united and became Great Britain. She remained as Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, until her death in 1714. Shades of Brexit: the game of politics as we see factions sparring in the film.
The film is inspired by history but writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara have fictionalised aspects– with breathtaking effect. Sarah and Anne were lifelong friends and confidants. In the film, they are depicted as being sexually involved as is the interloper Abigail who woos Anne, to become her favourite. It is doubted that there was a lesbian relationship in the triangle but that is immaterial. The sexual relationship in the film heightens the intimacy between them. A quirky fiction is the portrayal of 17 rabbits which belong to the queen. These are proxies for the 17 children she lost in childbirth. It is said that that she did not have 17 rabbits but the image injects a playful and elegiac image into the drama.
In the hands of director, Yorgos Lanthimos, we are presented with a comedy of politics – royal and country, sex, money and relationships. Lanthimos is a Greek man tucking into English Royal history – delicious. Tony McNamara- an Australian – was brought into add comic disruptions to Deborah Davis’ screenplay (she is English). The script is brilliant – dripping with rapier sharp riposte, caustic, in yer face Aussie repartee mashed up with English sensibility. I am not a fan of period dramas. I tend to find them stuffy, tedious. The Favorite is none of that. It is a ripper of a relationship story, a thriller with superb script, character infused performances, superlative cinematography, costumes and design.
The film was shot at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire and at Hampton Court Palace in Hampton Court- at Prodigy houses – a term for oversize English country houses. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan has used wide angle lenses, shooting from below so we get a sense of the architecture bearing down on the protagonists – particularly Queen Anne. She is baffled (by the politics and treachery and everyone around her). Bloated – physically and emotionally – she is tired, very tired. The camera work amplifies her state of mind and the sense of her living in a hall of mirrors where everything is distorted. It is almost as if Ryan has used techniques from smart phones- GoPro and other doodads– taking the construct of a 3d/4d panorama- stitching scenes together so they line up and give us an intensified view – an altered reality. Natural light was used when filming. Ryan strapped cameras onto his body (let’s not get onto technical terms). For example when a wagon overturns, the camera mirrors the tumbling. This is a fairground where everything becomes topsy turvy and jittery. The design is stripped-down opulence. The walls of the vast palace are adorned but there are huge expanses of wood floors and panelling. It is as if the residents are moving and most of the furniture has been removed but the decoration remains. Stark but opulent.
As the action and tension accelerates, Sarah (Rachel Weisz) becomes increasingly warrior-like as she fights for country and to remain the fave of the queen. Her costumes become androgynous. The motif of the female warrior pinged for me against the film, Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler. For me, it is the image of the female warrior in The Favorite which invites a conversation with Black Panther– the American superhero film based on the Marvel Comics franchise. We reckon that these two films could be screened as companion pieces: African super warrior women intersect with an English monarchist warrior woman. The African warriors are way nicer and evolved than the ruthless Sarah but they are spurred on to chart their own destinies.