The classics exist for a reason. Sometimes the best screenplays are the ones that take a familiar story and put a spin on it, making it unique, original and imaginative. Even stories that are familiar AND based on a true story can be made to be imaginative and clever at the hands of a good writer. Let’s just be honest: a good writer can make anything old new again.
Deborah Davis had never written a produced screenplay before. Tony McNamara is a writer whose entire career had been writing for Australian television. So why should we care about Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara? Because they have written one of the best screenplays of 2018, and if you love snappy and vicious dialogue and inventive, clever, ribald and saucy new ways to tell a familiar story, you will love their movie, The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.
And I don’t even know if the writing is the best thing about The Favourite. The direction is energetic and inventive, the production design is absolutely gorgeous, the costumes are magnificent and the acting, well, the acting is devastatingly good. And, on top of all that, The Favourite has found a way to make a movie set in 18th century England relevant to Americans in the 2018—I dare you to not find subtext here.
The Favourite is based on the last years of England’s Queen Anne, who, at the end of her life, was suffering from multiple illnesses and relied on the assistance of her good friend, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, to be her eyes and ears during the political upheaval of the time. When a young servant girl, Abigail, arrives at the palace and moves quickly to become a confidant of the Queen, jealousies envelop both women as they each find ways to sabotage and manipulate their rival to curry favor with the weak and gullible Queen. While there are layers to the stories and characters, the basic plot remains, an All About Eve-like battle between two women, one established and influential, and the other young, ambitious and dead set on unseating the other. Wickedness ensues, as the two women ruthlessly try to undercut the other, all the while the child-like Queen is all at once clueless and equally manipulative. It is a brilliant carousel of naughtiness between the three, and to call this movie fun is so far beneath it. It is delicious and vicious, clever and nasty, smart and sexy—and every moment is intoxicating.
The trio of performances in The Favourite is near-perfect. Olivia Colman, as Queen Anne, is achingly pathetic as a woman who has all the power in the world but has no idea how to use it. Even though we see Anne as this sad and pitiful excuse for a human being, Colman finds the humanity in her—the only humanity to be found in this horrible place—able to display heartbreaking melancholia in one scene, and throwing a childish tantrum in the next. At first, I thought Emma Stone was miscast as Abigail, but it didn’t take long for her to prove to me that she completely belonged here as she owned every movement in the most uninhibited performance of her career. But rising above both Colman and Stone (which is saying something) is Rachel Weisz as Sarah. Weisz delivers a devastatingly funny, bold, audacious and unabashed performance as she inhabits a woman who weaves her way through palace and personal politics with vigor, confidence and all the subtlety of a wolf on a sheep farm.
This movie is dark, literally and figuratively, and Lanthimos finds a way to turn the darkness into a character all its own. He finds all the dark comedy in Davis and McNamara’s script, while shooting much of the movie in literal darkness. You haven’t seen a movie look quite like this before—the use of fire and natural light, different camera lenses to create different perspectives, the movement of the camera to illustrate the insanity of it all. There was a point where the score struck me as a bit too on the nose to reflect the weirdness and chaos of the story, but after a while its minor keys worked on me as it set the mood perfectly for the discord on screen.
The Favourite is a weird movie, and one who’s raunchiness and lack of inhibitions might put some people off, but if you think you can handle dirty deeds, you will be rewarded with a rich and beautiful film about terrible people doing terrible things to each other. Jealousy, betrayal and revenge make for some of the best movies— and when you’ve got a script, a director, actors and an entire production that is as perfect as this one, the classics truly will never die.