I’m not a huge fan of historical dramas. I probably should be, but they come across oftentimes as a bit stale and stuffy — two things that don’t equal fun for me.
And yet, when I saw the trailer for “The Favourite,” I was intrigued. The cast looked stellar with Emma Stone, Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz leading the charge. It looked delightful and deliciously evil in that Disney villain kind of way. I went in expecting a historical black comedy. The film was even nominated in the “musical or comedy” category at the Golden Globes, so it was intended to be funny, right?
Here’s the thing. “The Favourite” is a well-done, classical historical feature. It’s well-written, beautifully shot and sets itself apart from any historical film you’ve ever seen. But, “The Favourite” is no comedy, not even a black one.
The film is set in the early 1700s. Queen Anne (Colman) is on the throne, but she’s not a leader. Her companion and counselor, Sarah (Weisz), is often the queen’s voice, but it’s her own policies and agenda she’s pushing. They’re incredibly close, although we don’t find out how close for a bit. (If you’re guessing they’re lovers, you’re right.)
Stone plays Abigail, an impoverished young woman who used to be a “lady.” Her family lost their reputation and wealth, and she was plunged into employment that isn’t something you talk about in church. In fact, her father lost her during a card game, and you can imagine how things went from there. Abigail is also Sarah’s cousin, and she’s come seeking employment as a maid or servant in the queen’s manor.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you know that Sarah and Abigail end up vying for the queen’s affection. Some of their actions are only harmless wordplay, but things gradually escalate. When Abigail discovers the queen’s secret relationship with Sarah, she uses her own sexuality as the ultimate ace up her sleeve, earning the queen’s favor both physically and emotionally.
As I said earlier, when I saw the trailer for “The Favourite,” I thought I was in for a black comedy along the lines of “Death Becomes Her” but without the dismemberment and death. I knew Sarah and Abigail both were trying to earn the No. 1 spot in the queen’s heart and — as I figured — her bed.
But don’t mistake this film for a simple tale about lesbians. At no point does “The Favourite” feel like a film about gay women. Instead, it’s a film about power. There are moments where I chuckled, such as when Abigail has managed marriage to a member of the court, thus reinstating her place as a lady. Abigail is plotting even as her husband bemoans his lack of, umm, attention. There’s something a bit funny about the scene but at the same time, it’s an uncomfortable kind of joke, if that makes sense.
And maybe that’s the problem. People keep labeling “The Favourite” as a comedy, but it’s not. It’s a tragedy. After all, no matter who “wins,” everyone loses, especially Queen Anne. It’s a heartbreaking tale of love and manipulation. The queen isn’t well on any level. Her body is failing her, and gout is her No. 1 enemy. She’s not strong emotionally or mentally either, completely willing to agree to anything to avoid conflict. She’s lost 17 children, and she has a bunny to represent each one. They’re cute, but they’re a “macabre” (as Sarah puts it) representation of death.
As the film comes to a close, the audience isn’t laughing. Instead, we walk away feeling as if we’ve been punched in the gut with a bowling ball. The things we’ve believed for the past two and a half hours seem to be false. And, we walk away knowing that misery will multiply for all the characters we’ve seen. No one has won, although someone kind of does. And no one is truly happy.
(There’s also a scene with a bunny that is truly traumatic as one of the characters mashes one of the furry critters. It’s not killed, but it’s also not a CGI bunny. A lot of Googling and reading about handlers on set happened afterward, and I’m still not OK with it.)
“The Favourite” is a film that is hard to watch. It’s not funny, and it’s not amusing, albeit there are moments throughout that could be considered frivolous. Colman, Stone and Weisz are brilliant from beginning to end. Each woman gives a powerhouse performance, especially Colman. (She especially devastates the audience as she discusses the significance of the bunnies.) Each of these women showcases a wide range of emotions, and we watch as they each revel in glee, bask in warmth and are shattered emotionally.
It’s a roller coaster of emotions, but one the film portrays beautifully. As such, it is a historical drama that avoids many of the genre’s pitfalls and provides an experience that is anything but stale or stuffy.
It is beautiful, vicious and ugly, yet always relevant and vibrant, overflowing with life in its myriad forms. It’s one of the best historical dramas I can remember seeing, but it’s also one that I’m quite OK never seeing again.