A lot has been made about how horror (“Get Out” last year) and superhero (“Black Panther” this year) films are making inroads with the Oscars, but – in terms of percentage of all films released – comedy remains the most snubbed genre. “The Favourite” (2018) finds a path to Academy attention, though, by chronicling the royal court of Britain’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) in 1708, replete with gilded paintings, frilly dresses, pancake makeup and powdered wigs. Oscar-film trappings, in other words.
A pitch-black satire of power games and the royal-court subgenre, director Yorgos Lanthimos’ film chronicles the attempts of two servants – established Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and newcomer Abigail (Emma Stone) – to gain Anne’s favor. The visuals are lush — I especially like the way candles and fires light everything at night – and Colman’s performance as the doddering queen is outstanding.
But comedy is a personal thing perhaps more so than any other genre, and I have to admit that I didn’t laugh and wasn’t totally hooked by the internal politics, and my engagement level stalled around middling.
Writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara try a variety of angles into the comedy. They try purposely anachronistic absurdity: At a royal ball, Sarah and her partner dance in a wild, unhinged style that hadn’t been devised yet in the 1700s. In a similar vein, Abigail comments on the customs of the time: She thinks Harley’s (Nicholas Hoult) makeup and wig are ridiculous. And they portray over-the-top obsession: Abigail verbally mulls her schemes while mechanically performing a sexual act on her husband, Masham (Joe Alwyn), whom she married in order to rise in the ranks.
“The Favourite” is one of those films where none of the characters are likable, and that’s part of what prevents me from enjoying it, but I’d contend that it could’ve made some of them more sympathetic. Anne comes the closest; thanks to Colman, she’s certainly the most entertaining character. She’s an atrocious queen, with all of her dictates about war and taxes stemming from how her favorite caretaker/lover/confidante of the moment stands on an issue. The mostly bedridden Anne whines about her gout, plays with her rabbits, and eats cake only to barf it up; she’s fascinatingly pathetic.
Abigail starts off as the audience surrogate, entering the castle covered in human feces, having been tossed out of the carriage upon arrival. But she quickly starts scheming, and I’m not clear if she had planned this rise in the ranks all along or if she is embracing opportunities. The reasons for Sarah’s political positions, meanwhile, aren’t revealed until the end.
As grand as the posturing and messages of “The Favourite” are, it has no new insight. While it’s a spot-on portrayal of how governments create anti-democratic plays for power rather than guard against them, it doesn’t offer any surprising nuances. I will say that it’s not agonizing to watch. Most of the plight caused by Anne’s reign is off-screen, and in the castle itself, the film doesn’t revel in violence against its characters; it’s light as far as dark comedies go. But “The Favourite” is borderline boring and not funny to me.