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Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018 12:04 am

The Favourite a wicked delight

 

Does an 18th century tale of palace intrigue have any relevance for our times? Well, any story that deals with behind-the-scenes machinations to wrest power at the cost of your moral integrity doesn’t have an expiration date, and, as such, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is timelier than ever.

This film is based on the life of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), who, for most of her adult life, suffered from gout and any number of imaginary ailments. As a mother, she suffered a great deal of tragedy having been pregnant 17 times, though none of her children survived into their teen years. (Twelve were stillborn or miscarried; four others passed away before they turned two; and her son William died at 11) Emotionally fragile, the monarch was incredibly vulnerable. Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), friends with the queen for more than 25 years, kept her secluded and away from others who might influence her so that she alone might control her, dictating policy and increasing her personal wealth. However, this cozy situation is turned upside down when Sarah’s own cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), a lowly palace chambermaid, ingratiates herself into the queen’s inner circle and sets her eye on becoming the ruler’s consort.

The ploys Abigail employs to achieve this are executed with a degree of sublime wickedness that results in no shortage of black humor. This is effectively driven home by Weisz’s slow-burn reactions as her set-upon Sarah suffers one humiliating indignity after another. Director Yorgos Lanthimos’ deft touch is a good fit for this material. As seen in The Lobster, he allows the most ridiculous moments to play out naturally to the end, allowing the absurdity of these scenes to reveal themselves. His trust in the script and his cast is his strongest suit, and his occasional use of a fisheye lens to distort reality is distracting and unnecessary.

As you would expect, the actresses recognize the juicy nature of their respective roles and run with them, each punctuating their characters’ most desperate or devious moments with a sense of relish that’s delightful and infectious. Colman has been unsung for too long, and she manages to portray Anne as a sympathetic character despite her many irritating traits. You wind up sympathizing with her once she comes to realize she’s a pawn in an elaborate game she had no idea she was a part of.

Weisz and Stone excel as well, and if the film has a fault, it’s that they don’t have more scenes together. Steely and smart, Weisz’s vulnerability and anger slowly emerges as she realizes her power is slipping through her grasp. The actress is wonderful as she barely maintains a sense of decorum, her more base emotions seeping through the cracks of her steely façade. As she’s done before, Stone excels in showing a character’s growth as she takes Abigail from being a desperate, floundering woman to one of confidence buoyed by deceit. The actress is obviously having a great deal of fun here.

As with any history-based film, more than a few liberties are taken with the truth. Anne’s husband Prince George is nowhere to be seen while the lesbian affairs that occur are speculation at best, brazen sensationalism at worst. Yet the spirit of the truth is at the core of The Favourite when you realize there were very few options open to women who wanted to avoid a life of drudgery. While you may not like what Sarah and Abigail do, you certainly can’t condemn them. This was a game of survival, and, left to their own devices, they played it just as ruthlessly as any of their male counterparts would have.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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