All about liege
After establishing an acridly humanist aesthetic across several singularly suffocating films, there was some question about whether Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster) could make the leap into the cinematic mainstream while also keeping his unique vision and voice intact. He didn’t exactly inspire confidence with last year’s comparatively straightforward The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a film that was sour and cruel without the restless invention and sucker punch satire of his earlier efforts.
All those fears are put to rest by The Favourite, a piquant costume drama about sexually charged power struggles deep within the inner circle of Queen Anne, the monarch of Great Britain in the early 18th century. Lanthimos takes a lean, sharp and witty script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara about conniving women and weak men and imbues it with his own peculiar and pitiless absurdism. The result feels like an outrageously opulent cross between Dangerous Liaisons and All About Eve.
Of course, none of it works without good performances, and The Favourite features stunning work from Olivia Colman as the mentally and physically frail Queen Anne, as well as rich supporting turns from Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah Marlborough and Emma Stone as Abigail, the two scheming competitors for her favor. Weisz has been reliably good for a long time, but Colman is a real find (she has primarily worked in British TV, although she appeared as the hotel manager in The Lobster) and Stone is a revelation, doing nuanced and calibrated work rather than an impression of herself.
As the story opens, Lady Sarah is the queen’s companion, purse keeper, puppet master and secret lover, easily manipulating the gout-stricken monarch after decades of harsh devotion and wielding her influence like a weapon against political rivals. Into the household comes Abigail, a distant cousin of Sarah left destitute because of her dead, drunken father’s gambling debts, now pleading for a position as a scullery maid.
In the patriarchal world of The Favourite, the male politicians dress in powdered wigs and makeup, and they act as coarse and craven and silly as they please (you will never look at a naked man getting pelted with pomegranates in the same way again), but conniving cruelty and sexual negotiation are the only ways for women to acquire power. Yet Queen Anne, who abuses underlings like a man and acts without fear of consequence to her power, also emerges as a strangely pitiful figure.
Although tormented by her fellow maids, Abigail proves surprisingly resourceful and manipulative. Inspired by the strength and power of Lady Sarah, she starts manipulating her way into the queen’s good graces, and eventually into her bed. As the stakes grow higher and Sarah starts to fight back, the methods of manipulation become increasingly savage. Like other Lanthimos movies, The Favourite is ultimately about people pushing past the assumed limits of love and morality and toward self-ruin, but the director realizes that vision on his grandest scale yet.