“The Favourite” — a diabolically dotty Oscar contender about a diva of sorts supplanted by a younger rival — owes something to the 1950 Oscar winner “All About Eve.” Call it “All About Eve” for the PBS' “Masterpiece” set. Like “Eve’ it offers the reminder that life, the ultimate power player, often dictates that winners might actually be losers and losers, winners.
The diva in question is Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and, when we first meet her, she is seeing her adored and adoring husband John (Mark Gatiss of “Sherlock” fame) off to lead yet another military campaign against the French, this time in the War of Spanish Succession, even as she’s at the top of her game as the right-hand woman of Great Britain’s Queen Anne. Encased in the largest mound of arthritic, ulcerated flesh this side of Henry VIII and bereft of her beloved husband, Prince George of Denmark, and their 17 children, Anne (Olivia Colman, who takes over from Claire Foy as another queen, Elizabeth II, in “The Crown”) has lost virtually everyone she has loved. She is mercurial, insecure, hypersensitive, imperious and emotionally needy and greedy. Sarah balances what could be an impossible relationship with the queen by alternatively bullying and protecting the queen.
Threatening to upset this delicate balancing act is the arrival of Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), Sarah’s genteel cousin who has fallen on hard times, often quite literally. While Abigail’s manipulative cunning is barely a match for Sarah’s intellectual brilliance, she is determined to regain and exceed the social status she has lost. Thus begins a high stakes game of raise and call in which the two women square off in an attempt to serve and control Anne politically, psychologically, socially and, even, sexually.
Writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara play this as Restoration farce and tragedy, with all their physical and emotional cruelty, while director Yorgas Lanthimos presents it as a Vermeer painting viewed through a camera obscura, which some art historians believed the painter used. In particular, the passageways through which the characters carry on the to-ing and fro-ing so fraught with intrigue are convex. They’re lit softly with candlelight. And the letters of the loopy phrases that announce the different “acts” are stacked vertically. (The credits are impossible to read.)
All of this may be off-putting to a viewer but it serves to underscore a story about people who know much, perceive less and understand nothing. “We’re not even playing the same game,” Sarah tells Abigail. But there is only one game, and it’s the same regardless of who plays it, the women as well as men. “The Favourite” suggests that contrary to stereotypes about the so-called fair sex, power is power and women can be just as devastating as men in their pursuit of it.
Anyone who has seen “All About Eve” knows how this will end. Abigail will gain the upper hand, but Sarah has resources that Abigail is not privy to. Like “Eve, “The Favourite” is a reminder of the old admonition to be careful what you wish for.
You might just get it.