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The Favourite is nasty, hilarious, obscene, absurd, and exquisite. In other words, it’s a Yorgos Lanthimos film. The Greek director has previously brandished his high-functioning brutality against our future (The Lobster) and our present (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), but he finally turns his cruel and cunning eye to the past in The Favourite, resulting in a unique costume drama that pulls no punches, kicks, slaps, or other acts of affection.
In 18th century Britain, the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) runs smoothly, largely thanks to the wits of her lady-in-waiting Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who wields power behind the scenes. While the Queen is too crippled by her emotional insecurity and a severe case of gout to actually rule, Sarah bends the political leaders of the nation to her will. Her shadow regime is imperiled, however, when her cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives seeking employment armed with only her ambition and a tale of woe.
She’s also a kind girl, or at least she can play one. Abigail’s compassion, in contrast to Sarah’s sternness, goes over well with the Queen, and soon the cousins’ affection turns into a bitter rivalry that puts the monarch at risk. Meanwhile, the thousands of British troops fighting a crucial battle in France become pawns in a game of survival between two women.
It’s a cheeky political satire that seems comically exaggerated only in contrast to the dainty view in which most films depict the era. Lanthimos seems determined to shake things up. The palace is refined and beautiful, but he frequently employs a wide-angle, fish-eye lens to literally distort his setting; it’s a style rarely—if ever—used in period pieces, and it adds an effective comic bent. Similarly, the period costumes and make-up favor stark contrasts between black and white, as if ripped from some macabre circus. The gap between our genre expectations of casual elegance and the film’s punk aesthetic makes for a nearly psychedelic experience.
These formalist touches might weigh The Favourite down if not for the tight script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, which teeters expertly between provocation and emotional authenticity. The skirmish between Susan and Abigail escalates into a war to win the Queen’s affection fought with the soft weapons available to women of the court: sex and lies. Lanthimos depicts both with unfussy realism—one scene features what could only be categorized as the world’s saddest handjob—as his strong-willed women are so fixed on their own survival that they see currency in neither truth nor love.
As the dueling warriors, Weisz and Stone make a formidable and eminently watchable pair. Of the two, Stone had the bigger leap to make. She always seemed more at ease playing modern women, but her performative persona—her characters always seem to be acting—serves her well for Abigail, who is flush with hidden motives. Weisz is more deep in her element, employing a steely reserve that shows Sarah suffering indignities but never losing her nerve, while still revealing enough of an emotional core to drive the action forward.
And yet it is Colman who provides Lanthimos with the pathos missing from his previous works, which elevates The Favourite to brilliance. Her Queen Anne is severely emotionally stunted, pathetic and desperate for validation, but with the ability to turn her self-loathing outward onto whoever stands nearby. On the one hand, it’s nothing new. Lanthimos’ characters have always doled out their cruelty with bemused detachment, but Colman is more of an open wound. Anne’s privileged life has not allowed her to learn from her mistakes or heal from her traumas. Every time you feel like laughing at her, she reveals some tender truth and engenders your sympathy instead. It’s a masterfully complex performance that provides this wicked tale a beating heart, not to mention a timely subtext: Imagine the terror of having an overgrown child run your country.
The Favourite opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.