“The Favourite,” the newest dark comedy by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, also known for “The Lobster” (2015) and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” (2017), is best walked into blind. Although the film’s concept is simple enough, a power struggle between a maid and her cousin in an 18th century English court, Lanthimos brings his distinctive style and surreal darkness to a period drama that is anything but predictable.
That being said, those that have experienced, or perhaps fallen victim to, Lanthimos’ disturbing imagination will enjoy the comparable light-heartedness of “The Favourite.” The setting is the court of Queen Anne, a real historical figure portrayed with brutal pitifulness by Olivia Colman. England is at war with France, and everyone from landowners to politicians and prime ministers put increasing pressure on the Queen to make decisions about it: namely, whether she ought to make a peace treaty immediately and put an end to an unpopular and costly war or raise taxes even more to ensure one more victory and put the nation in a better position for negotiations. But the only voice she seems to care about is that of her advisor and close friend Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). It is immediately clear that, although Anne has the final say in every matter, she is hopelessly incompetent and sickly, leaving a razor-sharp Sarah to influence her in every matter from politics to cosmetics.
Enter Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a bright-eyed young woman fallen on hard times, who happens to be Sarah’s cousin and has come to the court to get a job as a maid. When Abigail assists Anne during a flare-up of gout, she is invited into the Queen’s favored circle, much to the annoyance of Sarah. It doesn’t help that Abigail also allies herself with the landowners pressing for a treaty while Sarah is hell-bent on raising taxes to fund more wartime glory. But when Abigail learns of Sarah and Anne’s true relationship and the power and wealth it has afforded her cousin, she realizes she must gain the love of Anne as well if she is ever to improve her station — in whatever way she can.
Lanthimos did not write this script, but his trademark stilted dialogue between characters remains present. While the emotionless, deadpan delivery of Lanthimos‘ actors often gives a feeling of unease in his films, it feels more natural here; everyone in the court gives the impression of dignity and nonchalance anyway, even if the illusion is swiftly shattered. Lanthimos’ varied and often distorted camerawork emphasize the importance of appearance and how it can be bent or misshapen, just as the supposed values of the main characters — status and loyalty for Abigail, patriotism for Sarah. But the 18th century court society is an easy target; here, men wear ridiculous wigs and makeup while wagging their canes with authority and, in a terrifying bacchanal sequence, discuss policy while throwing fruit at a naked man in the same room . It is not as groundbreaking or daring as the social criticisms in “The Lobster,” which tackles love and dating culture, and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” which takes the brutal fatalism of a Greek tragedy and sicks it on modern upper-class life.
But “The Favourite” is far more lighthearted and commercial, even if it ends with lingering darkness. This is partly due to the hilarious script, written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. Full of profanity and bluntness, the best moments of this movie are the funny ones. The erotic ones come in close second; Lanthimos is a master at weaving sexuality into his plot in totally new and unique ways, and this is no exception, even if you already know the real history of Queen Anne’s affairs that this movie is based on. Colman is the clear star of the show, playing a woman who is as bratty as she is tragic, and Stone gives the role her all in her most dynamic performance since “Birdman” (2014). It is biting in its humor and its sadness, and the brash one-liners will stick in your head just as long as its horrifying final minutes.