Emma Stone Gives Her Best Performance Yet in 'The Favourite'
This post contains spoilers for the end of The Favourite.
I owe Emma Stone an apology. Not that she cares what I think, but for years I doubted her. I didn't doubt that she was a movie star, one of the most compelling screen presences in recent years, but that she could act in the most transformative sense of the word. But this year changed things for me. First there was Maniac, which found Stone not just inhabiting the persona of a deeply depressed young woman, but all the other incarnations of her brought on by pills in a pharmaceutical trial. And now there's The Favourite, which showcases Stone's best performance to date.
The Favourite -- which begins its rollout this weekend -- is arguably the most enticing movie of the year. About a possibly true lesbian love triangle in the court of Queen Anne of Great Britain and Ireland, it's directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, the man who brought you the deranged stylings of The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Go deeper, and it's about women's caustic friendships and how they negotiate power.
When The Favourite opens, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is being handled largely by her closest friend, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz). Anne is ailing. Her legs are besieged by gout and she's in a state of persistent mourning: She keeps 17 bunnies in her room, one for each child she lost in a miscarriage or early death. Sarah uses her closeness to Anne for politics' sake, angling to keep England at war with the French, but they're also lovers on the side. They entertain each other, certainly, but Sarah sees an opportunity in Anne's feebleness.
Enter Stone's Abigail: A once noble woman whose father sold her away to a man during a card game. She's cousin to Sarah and comes seeking work, but her larger goal is to get into Anne's good graces and somehow win her title back. At the outset, we're rooting for her, and that's largely thanks to our perception of Stone. Likability is an overvalued quality, in women especially, but Stone has made likable an art ever since she first broke out in Superbad. It's why she could carry a teen comedy on her shoulders in Easy A and why you want her La La Land ingenue to nail that song about Paris.
Abigail is savvy, but seems helpful rather than conniving. Stone told The Hollywood Reporter that she nearly decided she didn't want the role after reading first 30 pages: "I was like, 'Oh, Abigail's just going to be this sweet kind of girl, the victim, a servant to these people.'" Meanwhile, Weisz's Sarah is outright cruel to Anne. She insults her makeup, calling her a badger. She refuses to pet her bunnies, calling them "macabre." (She's not wrong.)
Still, as the narrative progresses, Stone starts to peel back layers of her innocence. She treats her suitor (Joe Alwyn) like a rag doll. Her form of flirtation is kicking him in the nuts. And she begins to scheme -- not just to get in the Queen's good graces, but also to bring down Sarah in callous fashion. Stone ever so slightly curdles those qualities that we inaccurately perceived as appealing. The glances that Lanthimos keeps showing turn from inquisitive to malicious, like when she stares up at Sarah, naked, from Anne's bed.
Hers is a pyrrhic victory. Abigail gets her good name back, succeeds in banishing Lady Sarah from England entirely, and takes her place by the queen's side. But you soon realize Abigail's interests have always been shallow, whereas Lady Sarah, through all her curtness, has something resembling benevolence in her soul. Sure, her relationship with Anne is transactional, but she also doesn't coddle the Queen, refusing to buy into her delusions. Sarah may be manipulative, but she tethers Anne to reality, and that, in a strange sense, is love. Abigail never accomplishes that, despite her posturing.
In the film's final sequence, Abigail, enjoying the finery of ner new life, puts her foot on one of Anne's rabbits, nearly smothering it. Sarah had merely ignored Anne's attachment to her tragedy; Abigail inflicts more pain on her benefactor. By the end, all three are in a state of misery. Anne has taken on more responsibility in her domain, but is suffering, her jaw drooping. Sarah is on her way abroad. And Abigail is more servile than ever. Anne calls her over, asking her to rub her pain-stricken legs. She pushes down on Abigail's head, and there's something perversely erotic about the action -- this is not unlike their other trysts. But it's also grim. The frame starts to crowd with the rabbits, overlaid in hallucinogenic fashion.
When I saw the film for the first time -- yes, I've already gone twice -- that last image was an immediate topic of discussion. Is it a sex joke? Or an omen? The more I think about it, the more it haunts me. If the creatures are Anne's dead children, then it's trauma (specifically women's trauma) taking over the screen.
Given that it's Oscar season, there's been a lot of back and forth over who the lead of this movie is. The powers that be have decided to push Colman for Best Actress, and if she were to receive a nomination, it'll be well deserved. Anne is an incredible, tragically comedic creation, suffering from physically limiting ailments -- but is she the true lead of the film? I, for one, can't stop thinking about Abigail, and in turn, Stone. She's a shapeshifter who transforms over the course of the film, persistently undermining our expectations of both the character and the star. Stone may be sitting out the Best Actress category, but her performance goes far beyond that of a supporting role.