The Favourite (2019) Review
Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone deliver what will be some of this year’s most memorable performances. But great performances do not make a great film. Does The Favourite match its leads’ performances in quality?
When weaving together a narrative, one must often first set their sights on the characters that will drive it. Upon doing so, the nature of the characters must be decided upon: are they to be firmly constructed of realism, or are they to be cartoonish? Given the intensity of The Favourite’s concept, it was a brave move for director Yorgos Lanthimos and writers Deborah Davies and Tony McNamara to side with the latter. Should the cast play their characters too cartoonish, and the intensity of The Favourite would immediately fizzle, leaving an empty husk of a film.
It is quite fortunate, then, that Lanthimos’ direction mediates the cast to walk the line between cartoonish fun and seductively captivating in their performances. The Favourite is, after all, a film not driven by its plot but by its three female leads. The plot itself is simple: the childish (and slightly insane) Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) must rule the country during its period of war with France in the early 1700s. She does so with the help of close friend Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), who controls the governments’ actions through manipulation of Queen Anne’s favouritism. Yet that very favouritism is threatened when young Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) arrives at court and soon finds herself growing close to Queen Anne to fulfil her own desires.
The beauty of the film’s narrative is that you will most likely root for each of the three leads at least once within the duration of the film, thinking that you favour one of them before another wins your heart with their actions- or the former does something delightfully despicable. There is not a single point in the film where you can comfortably predict who the favourite of Queen Anne will be in the end, or if there will be a favourite at all. The simplicity of the plot allows for the audience scheme alongside the characters, with the performances of each lead hooking the audience and dragging them to the edge of their chairs (metaphorically speaking, of course. The VUE’s recliner seats make scrambling to the edge of them very difficult) until the very end, which contains possibly one of the most haunting final shots in modern cinema.
By this point you are probably thinking that, by the sounds of this review, The Favourite is an intense Drama. Well it is, but that has not stopped Davies and McNamara injecting a fair amount of comedy into the script. The slightly cartoonish performances of the leads and their insanely strong chemistry helps to find humanity and realism within characters who are very much a product of fiction, despite their factual existences in history. One could argue that without the comedic edge of the script that The Favourite would be dull and unbelievable. Do not be alarmed, however. Whereas much of contemporary cinema seems to feel the need to insert a quip into every other line of dialogue, it is the performance of the cast in which the audience finds humour. Fortunately, this leaves very little room for failed jokes to awkwardly linger in the air of the audience. Instead it is hard to tell what is intended to be funny, allowing for every line to be open to the interpretation of the cast and audience. Davies and McNamara deliver a lively script that will surely dominate awards ceremonies this year.
Yet the film’s strongest asset is the cast. Each of the three leads are deliciously despicable and loveable, with Colman delivering perhaps the subtlest performance of the three despite her actions being the loudest. Furthermore, it is almost unnerving how alike Weisz and Stone’s characters are, especially when considering how much the most overt characteristics of their performances differ. Truly marvellous is that each of the three of them fail to steal the film from their fellow leads, for Colman, Weisz and Stone are equally spectacular every second that they are on screen. Nicholas Hoult also deserves credit for perfectly portraying my favourite current cinematic trope: a massive man-child whose actions prove that women were better suited to the roles of power that men have often occupied throughout history. The other male performances were fine but do not even hold a candle to the performances of power trio Colman, Weisz and Stone.
Most other aspects of the film are generally very well done also. The set and costume design keep the film authentic and a delight to the eye, serving up a satisfying banquet for fans of period pieces. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography allows for the audience to true invest in the character’s actions and dialogue during the longer shots and is surprisingly fluid in its portrayal of movement. Though the real unsung hero is The Favourite’s sound design, which, in a surround sound cinema, truly engulfs the audience into the scene, allowing for a strong sense of immersion. The largely wooden building in which the film is set acts as the perfect setting to create controlled echoes that transform the cinema into the building itself. Accompanying the wooden setting are the metallic props, the clatter of which strives a nerve where necessary. The Favourite’s sound design takes advantage of the film’s period setting and is certainly not hindered by it.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the use of strings within the film’s score. When allowed to float along with the scene the score revels in its beauty, though when intentionally clashing with the scene at hand it becomes an annoying distraction. The distraction does not take the audience from the period setting, but out of the film in its entirety. The clatter of the set and props creates such an effectively unsettling sound naturally within the scene that they render the sudden bursts of string unnecessary at times. Additionally, The Favourite’s pacing suffers briefly in the rare moments when the three leads are not interacting with each other on screen, as well when nearing the end of the film. It is an unfortunate problem that many films in which the plot takes a backseat to the characters’ interactions suffer, and The Favourite is no exception. Ultimately, the film could have done with ten minutes taken from the first hour, before driving into the more intense second hour.
Those, however, are only minor issues. For the most part, The Favourite is an intense delight that showcases what stellar acting can do to a film. I am not sure who I would recommend the film to, for it is at times unconventional in its approach and has some rather polarising lead characters. If you are looking for strong performances and are a fan of Dramas and/or period pieces, then this film if for you. Furthermore, if you are a fan of feminist cinema then you could find worse films to watch. Most importantly, if you want to see something different from the more conventional blockbusters shown in cinemas and like the look of the trailers then The Favourite will be an experience that is worth catching. It is undeniably well-made, boasts performances that will absolutely steal the limelight at this year’s awards ceremonies, and has an ending that will stay with you long after you have left the cinema.
By Ryan Hutton