Misleading trailers for difficult to advertise films are as old as trailers. The Favourite is the latest film to have that problem. Going by the trailer, it’s a laugh a minute slapstick period film with a much better cast than you’d expect. However, it’s not that. It’s much more. If it’s a comedy, it’s a pitch black one. It’s not without amusing scenes, but they come in the middle of a very dark character study of a trio of very broken people.
Queen Anne of England (Olivia Coleman), one of the many troubled monarchs in England’s history, is falling apart. Aside from her clear health problems, the torment of the 17 children she lost, many before birth, has left her a shell of a person. Luckily for her, much of the work of state is done by Sarah, (Rachel Weisz) who deals with parliament and meets with ambassadors. A new servant, Abigail, (Emma Stone) the daughter of a fallen lord, arrives in the palace. Catching the queen’s eye and serving as a useful distraction so Sarah can get on with work, Abigail becomes the queen’s confidante. Before long, they are both in a struggle for the mercurial queen’s affections.
That much was clear from the trailers. However, they made it seem like the rivalry would mostly take the form making each other fall over and getting each other’s clothes dirty. It is not that. It is two manipulative people, both terrified of losing what they have, trying to manipulate a third, ruined person. It is, occasionally, very funny. There are moments of outstanding physical and verbal comedy. But they come in a film that makes you feel every beat of the characters’ sick outlook. Whether any of them are genuine or can ever be trusted, or whether a clear distinction can be made, are all left to the audience.
The result is outstanding. You won’t feel the same way about any of the characters at any given point. The Queen is the obvious stand out. She’s pathetic and understandably so, but the country still runs on her, and she’s perfectly content to abuse her power for very petty reasons. Sarah is holding the reins of the country, trying to balance that with the unbalanced queen, but she also has a clear political agenda of her own, and is abusing her access to the queen, and is plainly and overtly manipulative. Abigail is terrified of returning to the destitution of her youth, but quickly abuses her new power. Even in the same scene, characters will change how you think about them. A scene that starts amusing turns dark, a dark scene can explode into humour. A scene that seems to be giving you yet more reasons to hate a character ends with a scene of complete vulnerability.
The director, Yorgos Lathimos, who previously directed ‘The Lobster’ and ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ loves toying with his audience. He mastered tonal whiplash in the Lobster, but its impressive to see him do so without the overt absurdity of that film. The characters in this never act like anything but real people, but we run through the gamut of emotions and tone. For the most part, he’s happy to let his outstanding cast do their work. For instance, most directors would feel the need to end with something more cinematic than a pair of close ups, but he knows he’s got a cast skilled enough to communicate their entire journeys in those close ups. He does throw in some very nice camera work, with masterful use of lenses to make things seem unreal, or claustrophobic or to emphasise the distance, but for the most part, the camera is a fly on the wall observer.
It’s tempting to compare this to last year’s ‘Phantom Thread.’ Both used the classic format of the period drama as a starting point, but neither stopped there. This is, despite being a film with no scene larger than a conversation, utterly engrossing. It’s hard to overstate how good the cast is, but it is genuinely revelatory how talented Emma Stone keeps proving herself. Every time she adds another string to her bow, you think “oh, this must be her ceiling.” And then it isn’t.
It’s outstanding. It’s a great study of interesting people, it looks good, and is remarkably cinematic given the small scale of its story. Just don’t go in expecting what was in the trailers.