This period drama flirts with convention but ultimately transcends it

Film Review | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Favourite
Opens Jan. 18
4 out of 5

While I appreciate a good period drama, I’m sympathetic to those who balk at the stilted dialogue, elaborate getups and historical hijinks like betrayals, shadow ruling and assorted executions (Mary, Queen of Scots has it all).

There is some of that in The Favourite, but also a modern take on the ruthless art of the power struggle, a dirty business that rots you from the inside just for playing. It also takes visual risks that differentiate it from your average Merchant-Ivory production. There is enough manual stimulation here to make Judi Dench blush.

The film depicts the battle for influence between Queen Anne’s longtime confidante Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone), an impoverished relative of hers. Sarah has the monarch’s ear and — ahem, more — to the point she reshapes England’s foreign policy.

Abigail, whose fall from grace has basically rewired her brain, uses every opportunity to lever herself into a higher position. Soon, the rising star and current confidante are at odds, much to the amusement of Anne (an imperious yet vulnerable Olivia Colman), who is far wilier than the two women fighting for her affection give her credit for.

Sarah and Abigail’s animosity plays out like a chess game, one in which rules of decorum quickly fall by the wayside. Men appear largely as ineffectual, decorative figures. The only one with agency is the Earl of Oxford (Nicholas Hoult, Beast in the X-Men movies), a veritable peacock with political designs of his own.

Entertaining, garish and impeccably acted, The Favourite serves as a morality play on the double standard we use to measure men and women’s ambitions, without being too pandering about it. It also underlines the difference between the illusion of power and the real deal, and the dangers of mistaking one for the other. Abigail is a Scarlett O’Hara-type ingénue, but an ingénue nonetheless.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) tones down the absurdism just enough so the film feels human, despite the riches and decadence on display. As in his previous movies, the outcome is too clinical to leave a mark, but as a comedy it’s a delight.