You know writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos for his pitch-black humor, dry Greek pastiche, tendency to shock, and insistence upon modernity. His five previous features take place in the current day (or an alternative dystopian version of the current day per The Lobster). The Favourite brings this trend to a halt. Without shirking his love for all things mentioned above, Lanthimos ventures into the early 18th century to wed his unmistakable pastiche to a half-true account of the reign of Great Britain’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman).
The film begins with Queen Anne and her historically known bestie and chief political advisor, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz)—otherwise known as Lady Marlborough, Lady Sarah, or Mrs. Freeman, depending on who’s talking—looking out Anne’s master chamber window, engaged in a quick-witted conversation about friendship more or less. They bite back and forth, each statement so quick and well-worded you can’t help but laugh at the minor confrontation. If the delivery alone doesn’t give you a giggle, the candor of content will have you buckling over in hilarity. And that’s just the first scene.
The plot of The Favourite is simple. It follows the attempted rise of Lady Marlborough’s cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), within the hierarchy of Queen Anne’s servant staff. We meet Abigail in her dreggiest form, basically begging for the lowest maid position based solely on her distant relation to Lady Sarah. With an upturned nose, Sarah begrudgingly grants her wish. Abigail is mostly absent in the beginning, which sets the tone for Lady Sarah and Queen Anne’s deep relationship that stretches back to the espièglerie of childhood, and has continued on into the royal affairs of adulthood.
Anne makes it immediately known that she has no experience in political matters, complaining, “We already won the war!” when tasked with the decision to impose more taxes on the people. “We won a battle,” Sarah, who might as well work in Washington, snaps back as if she’s speaking to a child. The political background is such: double down on taxes to strengthen the war effort, which will run the people dry, or attempt to collaborate with the French on a peace treaty, which runs the risk of showing weakness.
It’s used as much as necessary to move the plot forward and introduce subsidiary characters, but it is a mere background. Lanthimos and screenwriter Tony McNamara (who adapted Deborah Davis’ original screenplay) are less interested in the droning politics of the time, and much more invested in the relationships between the three focal women and the social behavior within the palace. Among the women are kooky, supporting men: the cheery, conniving Speaker of the House of Commons, Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) and the Abigail-adoring Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn). Harley wants a treaty. Sarah wants to double the tax. An indecisive Anne is berated by both with advice. Abigail is a master of leveraging the discord in the palace to her benefit.
All three women are written with a whip-crack wit, much like the characters of an Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, A Few Good Men) screenplay. They are cunning, crude, sharp, forthright, and in control. Abigail and Lady Sarah are like Praying Mantises. They strategize and wait for the right moment to render warning cuts on all who oppose them without the victim realizing it until they walk away and it starts to sting. Queen Anne is literally and more abrasively in charge. But she is in terrible health, her body ballooning with disease, and her wit turns quickly into blunt force.
The foolish men have a clever tip of the tongue, too, politicians as most of them are, but comparatively, they are more like dogs wrestling in a play pin, subjects of the women’s pillory. Lanthimos displays them in a riotous fashion, facetiously formed in the effeminate masculinity of the time, which, in its commentary, delivers a beguiling blow to the masculinity of today. They race ducks like dipshits, obsessing over sport, and assigning glorious honor to the winners who carry around their victorious ducks afterward with a senselessly stubborn pride.
On the contrary to today, they are uproariously vain about their makeup and dress. “A man must always look pretty,” Harley tells Masham on his first date with Abigail, who finds Masham’s clown-like makeup over-indulgent. They wear frilly, decadent garbs, and delight in their long, curly white wigs. In toying with the manhood of then and now, the McNamara is not condemning any version of masculinity, so much as they are ridiculing the idea that any particular brand of masculinity is inherent in a male; rather, these differing masculinities are based on cultural norms that have no innate grounding in a human being. But most of our time is not spent in the company of men.
As Abigail works her way into the heart of the Queen, the devices of Sarah and her cousin become increasingly tactful. Secrets are unraveled, tempers are tested, stakes are heightened. All the while, the dark drama and hysterical comedy weave in and out of each other fluidly. The tender company of Anne’s 17 beloved bunnies begins to play a more significant role. Sexual tension enters unexpectedly. The most ludicrous and side-splitting dance scene I’ve ever seen elicits a very different reaction from the Queen. The narrative never stops getting juicier.
This is the first time Lanthimos has directed a film that he hasn’t written the screenplay for, but the film is no less because of it. His trademarks are present and his direction is ingenious—delicate, beautiful, and inventive. Shot by Robbie Ryan (known for his work with Andrea Arnold) on Kodak 35mm, the film has an exquisite textural grain, which presents an excellent occasion to utilize double- and triple-exposure. It also marks the first use of a fisheye lens in a worthwhile film that actually works (Malick was way off), the wide angles giving viewers a holistic and occasionally dreadful perspective on the palace’s ornate interior, bedizened with an excessive amount of tapestries, furniture, and fine metals.
Colman, Weisz, and Stone give absolute knockout performances, each of them their own perfect comi-tragic blend. They are bound to stand out come awards season. The film is truly nothing without them, unlike Hoult and Alwyn, who could, in theory, be forgotten, but whose terrific little performances make the whole that much better (Hoult, in particular, never failed to get a laugh). Rarely do we get a film in which everyone involved hits their stride in such collective harmony. Lanthimos’ The Favourite is an incredible infusion of modernity and Restoration-era Great Britain—a boisterous, balanced, farcical, and, at times, unapologetically inexplicable update on the royal British period piece.