Sometimes, the best twists do not manifest as supernatural ghosts or as a long-lost relative. Sometimes, the best twists are not external but ones that were within the character all along. The characters of The Favorite think they know each other, inside and out. As members of Queen Anne’s court, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) vie for her favor and the power that entails. But Queen Anne (Oliva Coleman) is more than a figure to be manipulated. She, too, has a motive. As the three women pull and push each other, though, each one’s goals become more and more unclear. Director Yorgos Lanthimos reveals the characters as much to the audience as to themselves.
18th century England is a land of strict propriety, but Lanthimos finds the farce in it. The wigs and excessive make-up are treated as constant visual jokes. Even the extravagant palace settings are used more to make fun of than to glorify. Certainly, the entire film is visually fabulous, but all the gold veneers only serve to highlight the messiness of the lives within. The humanity of the characters and most of the supporting cast help greatly in grounding the film in emotion. Lanthimos does not want the audience to think of the character merely as plot points but as insecure bundles of nerves and feelings. No matter what Sarah and Abigail might say to themselves, they are vulnerable. And not even their impeccable table manners or frighteningly tight dresses will impede them from demonstrating how they feel.
This movie is a testament to each of the actresses’ choices, too. Stone is physically sloppy while being entirely emotionally composed. Weisz, too, schemes and maintains a careful exterior, but the few times she allows it to slip are the most touching of the entire movie. Together, the two characters engage in combat over who can win Queen Anne’s affections. It is a delicate political dance and a bruising fist fight. It is warfare and a promenade. It is women fighting women in ways only women can. The Favorite is message driven without being pandering. It allows its characters to explore issues without forcing the issues upon them. It is also easily one of my favorite movies of the year.