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Favourite, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Court And Sparks"
5 stars

At first blush, “The Favourite” may strike most viewers as the kind of typically well-appointed example of Oscar bait that tends to flourish during the last weeks of the year. The period trappings, the killer cast top-heavy with award winners, hell, even the British-influenced spelling of the title all suggest something very serious and high-toned and presumably similar to too many other examples of previous cinematic museum pieces to mention here—some excellent and some—okay, many—that feel more like enormously expensive dioramas than anything else. After a few minutes of watching, however, it quickly becomes evident that this is not going to be that sort of movie after all and that viewers are going to be in for a much funnier and fascinating ride that adroitly juggles cheerfully bizarre and delightfully rude humor, moments of genuinely felt emotion and stellar performances from three wonderful actresses in an acerbic meditation on power, greed and jealousy that proves to be one of the most engagingly odd and compelling films of the year.

Based at least slightly in fact, the film is set in the early 18th century and has as its central character none other than Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). As we quickly find out, it is not necessarily good to be queen as Anne is particularly miserable in her position as she rattles the halls of Kensington Palace—she is prone to fits of childlike immaturity, suffering from a painful bout of gout that at times leaves her all but immobile and, most of all, painfully and awkwardly lonely despite her immense position of power and prestige. Her only regular companion is her longtime friend and secret lover Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and we quickly determine that Sarah is somewhat more interested in running the affairs of state in her friend’s stead—especially in regards to continuing an increasingly expensive and pointless war with the French that is causing widespread resentment amongst the people—than in her actual well-being. On some level, Anne presumably knows that she is being used but when faced with the choice of a simulacrum of friendship or none at all, she is willing to settle for the former.

Meanwhile, Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), is enduring the coach ride from Hell (in which being dropped face first into the filthy ground is {i}not{/i} the low point) to arrive at the palace. She has also lived a hard life, albeit on a different social and economic scale, after having been sold off by her own father years earlier in order to settle some gambling debts, and is now arriving in the hopes of using her connection with Sarah as a way of finding some means of employment. Sarah is not especially thrilled to see Abigail and has her put to work as a lowly servant doing the most backbreaking of tasks by day and sleeping in an overcrowded and chilly room at night. However, Abigail is not one to be underestimated and she soon begins slowly but surely climbing her way up the palace caste system, first getting an in with Anne when she secretly makes a poultice to help treat her badly infected legs. Although initially punished for such insubordination, this move helps get her a small room of her own and a certain degree of awareness from Anne herself. Things escalate when Abigail inadvertently discovers the real details of the relationship between the queen and her cousin and decides to use the knowledge as part of a plan to seduce Anne herself and usurp Sarah. What happens from this point on is best left discovered for yourself. Suffice it to say, this is not your standard-issue costume drama in even the slightest—if you can imagine a merging between the already-subversive historical epics “Barry Lyndon” and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” you will have at least a partial grip on the craziness to come.

“The Favourite” was directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, the audacious Greek surrealist filmmaker who first made a name for himself on the international scene with the indescribable dark comedy “Dogtooth” (2009), earned a surprise Oscar nomination for his screenplay for the equally bizarre 2015 effort “The Lobster” (a film in which single people have 45 days to find romance or they are transformed into animals) and the dark and deeply weird “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” (2017). While his decidedly unique style of storytelling has won him no small amount of praise over the years from people who see him as some kind of hybrid of Kubrick and Lynch, I have not been quite so much in his corner—while “Dogtooth” was indeed a breath of fresh air, his subsequent films have largely struck me as being more about showing off just how clever he was as a filmmaker and how much superior he was to his characters than in telling a story that was compelling on any basic level. “The Favourite,” on the other hand, manages to find a perfect balance between the twisted and the relatable and i suspect that the fact that this is the first film that he has made that he didn’t have a hand in writing—Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara did the honors—had more than a little to do with it. Unlike Lanthimos’s previous films, in which he has often seemed to be shoehorning all sorts of disparate elements in without ever quite figuring out how to make them all work, the screenplay he is working from here is a thing of real beauty in the myriad ways in which it both skewers the conventions of the historical epic and constructs a story that is both ambitious and genuinely worthy of interest.

The film is a brutally funny and fantastically rude comedy of usurpation and one-upmanship among people in a rarefied community of a kind perhaps not seen since the classic “All About Eve”—the only thing funnier than watching Abigail and Sarah as they subtly (and not so subtly) try to take each other down for Anne’s favor is when Anne herself decides to throw the occasional wrench into the works just because she can. At the same time, the screenplay has been structured in such a careful way that that stranger moments—and there are plenty of them—are not just there for the sake of being strange, as has sometime been the case with Lanthimos’s previous films. Early in the film, for example, we are introduced to the 17 bunny rabbits that Anne keeps around the palace and as we see them scampering about in the background, it seems at first to be just another goofy non-sequitur. As the film goes on, however, the bunnies prove to have much more import than just a simple joke as they wind up revealing essential character details of both Anne and Abigail in ways far more direct and effective than mere exposition could.

The other big difference between this film and Lanthimos’s previous efforts is that for the first time, the characters come across as actual people and not just constructs being manipulated by the machinations of his increasingly strange narratives. Instead of keeping his characters at arms length, forcing viewers to regard them more as specimens than anything else, he allows us to get to know and understand them—even at their absolute worst behavior (and there is a lot of that on display here), we always gets a sense of what is driving them to do what they do that give them greater dimension. In this, he is aided in no small part by the great, go-for-broke performances from his three lead actresses. Colman, perhaps best known here for playing the older Queen Elizabeth II on “The Crown” is magnificent here in a very different regal role—her instantaneous shifts between imperiousness and childish petulance are both hilarious and scary and when she lets her guard down to show the sad and suffering person behind the pomp and circumstance, the results are shockingly touching and effective. As the more overtly nasty and power-hungry of the two cousins vying for Anne’s attentions, Rachel Weisz is as good as she has ever been before—her viciousness knows no bounds but she never lets the character devolve into a mere cartoon and if there is a real flaw to the film, it is that she is cast to the sideline a little too much during the final half-hour or so. If I was forced to name one performance as the best, however, I would probably have to go with Emma Stone because this is by far the best thing that she has ever done. When she first turns up, wide-eyed, covered in muck and treated cruelly by those around her, we instantly feel sympathy for her but as things progress and she begins her ascension within the palace walls, she slowly begins to reveal a determination to achieve her goals at all costs that is both funny and terrifying.

Make no mistake about it, “The Favourite” is not your typical costume drama in the slightest and anyone going to see it under that apprehension is liable to come away from it more than a little shocked—not only do the characters in this film swear, for example, they swear with the kind of poetic flair that will leave even those who think they have heard it all gasping in surprise. This is closer in tone to films like Sofia Coppola’s masterpiece “Marie Antoinette” and Whit Stillman’s “Love & Friendship” that have elected to infuse period narratives with contemporary sensibilities with fascinating results. Yes, it is crude, rude, savagely funny, occasionally bewildering and contains far more slow-motion duck races than one might ordinarily expect from a film of this type. It is also one of the nerviest and best films of 2018.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32184&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/01/18 03:41:30
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 New York Film Festival For more in the 2018 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 AFI Fest For more in the 2018 AFI Fest series, click here.

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USA
  23-Nov-2018

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Australia
  23-Nov-2018




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