Set during the very short reign of Queen Anne, director Yorgos Lanthimos‘ The Favourite is his most accessible work to date. Lanthimos’ previously sardonic films have included Dogtooth, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Acting as screenwriter, in conjunction with Efthymis Filippou, for his previous works, here, he cedes those duties to Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. Davis and McNamara, in this regal lover’s triangle, retain much of the director’s taste for the absurd, while flourishing in a tale of backstabbing, manipulation, and courtly machinations.
The Favourite, a combination of All About Eve and Barry Lyndon, begins in the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Anne, a tempestuous and sickly monarch with a sugar problem, is played by Colman in her best performance to date (in what’s an early foray into royalty before she takes over as Queen Elizabeth in The Crown). Emotionally fractured and dependent, Anne collects bunnies, 17 in total, each representing her tragic failed child births. She is controlled in a largely unbalanced relationship by Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), her confidant and lover. The two have set roles, Lady Sarah, skilled in the art of courtly and political intrigue, and lining her pockets, handles the day-to-day affairs of the palace and the War of Spanish Succession, while Anne, in an ode to Marie Antoinette, is left to play with her rabbits and eat cake.
Their relationship unravels with the arrival of Abigail (Emma Stone), a fallen aristocrat who’s lost her title. Yorgos’ Lanthimosian humor works to great effect through Abigial, who we initially meet after she’s been thrown from a carriage into the mud. Abigial, a distant relative of Lady Sarah, has arrived to find employment through her cousin. Given the duties of palace servant, she becomes a quick study, learning the seat closest to the Queen is often the best. Abigail spends the film competing with Lady Sarah as confidant, and later, lover to Anne. Showering compliments on the all too needy Queen, and treating Anne’s unknown skin ailment, Abigial’s ascent is quick.
Lanthimos casts a glutinous eye with his camera, filming the extravagant trappings of 18th Century English royalty. The lens, filled to the brim with guild and tapestry, unnecessarily overflows by way of Lanthimos’ reliance on fish-eyed shots. Nevertheless, the director does offer a dramatic air through his lighting. Certainly the darkest shot film of the year, The Favourite oscillates between near single candle lit black hallways and washed out bed chambers. His play with lighting often brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.
The dialogue by Davis and McNamara, away from Lanthimos’ sometimes wooden tongue, occupy the space between sharp and innuendo. Every actress, at one point or another, discovers a position of power. Emma Stone is particularly conniving and brilliant in her taut manipulation of the court, while Rachel Weisz continues a career renaissance as the strong, intelligent, and dangerous Queenmaker. Consciously, none of the women at the story’s center have children. In fact, other than one shot of a baby, children are nowhere to be found. In an era where a woman’s worth was defined by her frequency of childbirth, The Favourite declines such trappings of the period. The film also presents one of the great forgotten insults, cunt-struck.
The Favourite will also clean up on craft nominations, as costume designer Sandy Powell and set decorator Alice Felton apply a palette of monochromaticism and blues. Witty and dramatic, The Favourite offers the path of least resistance for anyone not swooned by Lathimos’ brand of filmmaking, a brand that will attract many imitators in the years and decades to come.