Review: Fabulously weird 'The Favourite' pits Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz as royal rivals
Watch a vicious competition between two assistants to Queen Anne in the early 18th century. USA TODAY
Very rare indeed is the Oscar-ready costume drama that features duck racing, bunny birthday parties and one supporting actress contender chucking books at the other's head.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos’ wild take on the stuffy period piece is an 18th-century hoot that marries “Mean Girls”-level insults and slapstick humor: Before the movie really even gets going, Emma Stone face-plants into mud after being thrown out of a carriage – and that's far down the list of her most bonkers situations. As hilarious as it is, "The Favourite" (★★★½ out of four; rated R; in theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles, expanding through December) doesn’t skimp on impressive costuming and production design, and the film gamely tackles class and gender themes, as well as partisan politics, in its tale of women behaving badly and men being nitwits.
The tragicomedy is set in England during the era of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), a gout-ridden sovereign who suffers from insecurity, shyness and mad fits of rage, usually aimed at random servants.
Because of her issues, the country is run primarily by Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), a focused and powerful figure who’s been Anne’s best friend since childhood and is now the queen’s most trusted adviser (and secret lover). Sarah also doesn’t suffer fools, not even reigning ones: When Anne goes a little heavy on the eye makeup, the queen’s BFF tells her in withering fashion, “You look like a badger.”
England is in some tumult at the time because of the war with France – plus the conflicting ideologies of the Whigs and Tories – and chaos begins to infiltrate the palace with the arrival of the bewitching Abigail (Stone). Sarah’s cunning cousin is clawing her way back to aristocracy after her side of the family has fallen on cash-strapped hardship and disfavor.
Abigail is first assigned to be a scullery maid, but her charm enchants Sarah and then Anne, creating a love triangle that lands Abigail in the royal bedchambers. The newcomer becomes an ally for scurrilous Tory leader Robert Harley (a scene-stealing Nicholas Hoult), who wants to use Abigail’s connections to the throne to end the costly war, and Abigail also sees marriage to dim-bulb Baron Masham (Joe Alwyn) as yet another way to climb the ranks.
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Fair warning for historical purists: Much of the real Anne’s reign is a mystery, but it’s safe to say there wasn’t breakdancing at courtly shindigs. The beauty of Lanthimos’ filmmaking, like with the romantic absurdity of his dark comedy "The Lobster," is how he turns weird, self-aware storytelling into entertaining, audience-friendly cinema. There’s not a lot of subtlety in the stately shenanigans of "The Favourite," though the ending is potentially polarizing for some with its metaphorical meanings.
It’s hard to imagine the cast being better, especially with how the film pits Stone’s conniving, street-smart Abigail against Weisz’ more polished but savvy Sarah. Both actresses are endlessly amusing, whether it's Sarah jealously tossing the aforementioned tomes at Abigail’s noggin or Abigail getting a little nervous when her frenemy brandishes a rifle while the two are pigeon shooting.
Most importantly, “The Favourite” gives American audiences a grand introduction to Colman, almost assuredly a best actress nominee thanks to her exceptional performance as the enigmatic Anne. A veteran of British film and TV (“Broadchurch,” “The Night Manager”), Colman lends wit and pathos to a mercurial queen, one who keeps 17 rabbits around at all times, is embarrassed by her health and submissive to her confidantes, though still fully aware of her status even when least expected. (Get to know Colman now before she takes over duties as Queen Elizabeth from Claire Foy on the next season of Netflix's "The Crown.")
“The Favourite” is an abundantly entertaining gem for those allergic to fussier looks at history, wrapping royal ambitions and a war of manners in high-end farcical comedy.