Essentially, The Favourite gives each of its three stars an act to shine. Rachel Weisz gets the first act, Emma Stone the second, Olivia Colman the third. They all appear throughout, but the script’s surprisingly segmented with its narrative perspective. Surprisingly because it means the first-act protagonists (Weisz and Stone) are accessories in the third act. However, since the film is about the Queen of England (Queen Anne, reigned 1702-1714), Queen Colman taking over for the finish works.
Though, not really.
Colman is the miserable queen, and Weisz is her best friend and (obviously secret) lover. The act breaks come when Stone, Weisz’s fallen cousin, comes to the palace for a job and discovers their romantic relationship. Weisz doesn’t like Stone because Weisz is a rather mean person. It initially seems like a classist thing, but it runs deeper, especially after Colman realizes she can make Weisz jealous by hanging out with Stone. Stone at least likes Colman’s rabbits; Colman has one for each baby she lost as the royal broodmare (seventeen).
Throughout the second act, as she feels threatened, Stone starts devising a plan to usurp her cousin and regain her good standing. Luckily, opposite politician leader Nicholas Hoult (shockingly good) wants Stone to spy on Weisz, and Stone likes Hoult’s bro, Joe Alwyn, so they can work something out.
Of course, once Weisz feels threatened, she’s got to react. Weisz’s interests are far more vested than Stone’s; Weisz’s husband (Mark Gatiss) is a general off fighting the French, and Hoult doesn’t want any more money to fight the French. But Stone’s fighting for survival, something even after her life’s endangered, Weisz doesn’t seem to realize. And the film’s not very sympathetic about. The second act’s all for Stone, and it’s entirely a villain arc.
Director Lanthimos shoots the first two acts with fish-eye lenses, forcing the audience to engage in the filmmaking artifice, making the period piece feel much more real. He also does long takes of his leads—mostly Stone and Colman, as both have realization arcs. In contrast, Weisz is never wrong about the personal relationship stuff, something the film also doesn’t acknowledge. There’s still fish-eye in the third act, but much less, and for visual effect rather than something to help the character development along. Favourite’s finely directed, but it’s clear in the second act, Lanthimos doesn’t have any more tricks up his sleeve. His style doesn’t build throughout.
Excellent natural light photography from Robbie Ryan. The whole film looks great, but the outdoor scenes and the candle-lighted ones are particularly spectacular. Also excellent editing from Yorgos Mavropsaridis, who occasionally breaks into intricate montage sequences during scenes. Not many, but a few. Lovely work.
The music’s booming classical (while Weisz described Favourite as an All About Eve-type picture, Lanthimos is very much doing Barry Lyndon avec femmes), and the sound design’s superb. The costumes and production design (Sandy Powell and Fiona Crombie, respectively) are fantastic. Favourite looks and sounds great.
Best performance is Colman, then Stone, then Weisz, which is a surprise since Weisz is so good in the first act. She just loses the movie to Stone, who’s increasingly fantastic until the script infantilizes her. Then only Colman’s left without serious constraints, and she has a marvelous showcase. Still not as good as it ought to be (the third act pretends The Favourite has been a character study of Colman from the start, which it very much has not been).
The script, by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, is clever with good dialogue, which is enough given the cast and crew, but lacking.
Still, The Favourite’s one heck of a good picture, with some phenomenal acting and filmmaking.