Pictures that depict life in pre-Industrial Britain tend to focus on regal figures or the aristocracy, with both groups shown to be courteous, civilised and refined beings, which makes for very boring viewing. For such a story to be entertaining, it would need to turn a well-utilised formula on its head, much like this film does.
At the turn of the 18th century, Britain is at war with France, and Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is ruling the throne of England with the barest semblance of sanity. She has only two sources of comfort preventing her from madness: her rabbits, and Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) who acts as her caretaker, advisor and confidant. Rumours abound that the two are also lovers, despite Sarah being married to Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss).
Newly arrived at the Queen’s estate is Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah’s cousin and the daughter of a one-time nobleman. Abigail initially works as a lowly servant, but is promoted to lady-in-waiting after illicitly, successfully treating Queen Anne’s gout with an herbal remedy. Her presence is deemed a threat by Sarah, who worries that Anne is becoming increasingly fond of Abigail, hence lessening her authority over, and closeness to, the Queen.
The Favourite is quite an idiosyncratic film, combining the appearance of a period drama with the tone of a quirky independent release – characters utter endless profanities, the dancing is most inelegant and awkward, the soundtrack consists of classical music played on a harpsichord, and some lines of dialogue can only be described as peculiar. The film is also technologically distinctive, as evidenced by the fish-eyed lenses, panning shots and scenes of hedonism played in slow-motion.
All of these factors ensure that The Favourite is far removed from the other movies that set themselves in the 18th century, which usually prove slow, dreary and unpalatable; yet, it does possess many of the virtues found in said movies, like the elegant costumes (designed by multiple Oscar recipient Sandy Powell), immaculate set decoration and clear cinematography, the latter of which is courtesy of Robbie Ryan.
The performances are another highlight of The Favourite, particularly Olivia Colman’s. She deftly conveys Anne’s madness without resorting to melodramatics, whilst also showing her to be a compassionate, considerate figure who will listen to reason. One will additionally enjoy the acting of Nicholas Hoult, who dons heavy make-up and a large white wig to portray Robert Harley, the opposition leader during much of Anne’s reign, and the always-endearing Emma Stone as the witty, resourceful Abigail.
Although The Favourite is rich in qualities, there are elements which prove quite distracting, and frustrating. To begin with, the film’s text – which proclaims chapters and credits – is spaced evenly between very narrow margins, making it nigh-on unreadable; every bit of tension and suspense is extracted by picture’s end, with proceedings slowing to a halt as a result; and the conclusion is so underwhelming that the viewer will ultimately be left feeling disappointed as they leave the theatre.
The Favourite is an unorthodox release that eschews the banalities of royal dramas, preferring to rely on quirky exchanges and behaviour, an approach that works to its advantage. Equally, the film is blessed with some memorable performances and unique visuals, making it one of the more interesting pictures to emerge during this Awards season.