Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) is a director who has long reveled in making his audience disoriented and uncomfortable. Whether in explicitly disturbing us or in pushing us up against our social mores he has made a career out of eliciting nervous laughter with his macabre sense of humor. His latest, the nasty, hilarious, and odd The Favourite is in many ways par for the course even as it looks and feels like nothing he has ever done before.
The Favourite is a deliciously ostentatious period piece that features all the production values you could ever wish for from such a movie, but uses the setting as window dressing for the devilish confrontation between the movie’s central trio of actresses. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne, a childish and physically impaired monarch who seems to have an endless list of people looking to play her the fool for their own political gains while trying to avoid her arbitrary wrath. Anne is in the middle of an unseen war with France which has split her parliament in two between the waning Whigs and upstart Tories, each side jockeying for her favour. Sarah (Rachel Weisz), the duchess of Marlborough, uses her standing as Anne’s childhood friend and sometimes lover to position herself as the Queen’s buffer and advisor and is effectively the one truly in charge. Their tenuous and convenient arrangement is thrown off balance however by the arrival of Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), who finds herself deposed of her own lofty potential thanks to her father disgracing himself and who Sarah takes uncharacteristic pity on by giving her a lady-in-waiting position. This will prove to be a decision she will soon regret.
Abigail’s initiative (or exploitative gumption, depending on your perspective) finds her quickly threatening Sarah’s position as the Queen’s favorite which naturally brings out the foppish men. Chief amongst them is Harley (Nicolas Hoult), the leader of the Tories who senses an opportunity to try and shift the balance of power in his favor. Yet they are nothing more than entertaining side-shows in this spectacle, children while the ruthless women play their dangerous game of high stakes. It is Mean Girls in aristocratic clothing. And it is just as entertaining to watch.
These machinations help make The Favourite easily Lanthimos’ most explicitly comedic and accessible movie to date. Borrowing from the great tradition of period plays, the movie at once feels at home with Downtown Abbey or more closely with Dangerous Liaisons with its explosive mix of decorum and transgressions. Yet several things keep this from being merely a stodgy chamber piece movie. The first is the fantastic work of cinematographer Robbie Ryan. Eschewing traditional framing, he shows us this bygone world through the use of fish-eye lenses, dolly shots, ultra-wide composition, and whiplash camera-pivots which gives the whole movie an otherworldly feel. I’m not sure if you can draw deep meaning into the camera choices here, but its clear deviation from the norm of period pictures makes the movie strangely eccentric, heightening the comedy with its air of unpredictability. This, combined with the outlandish and often-times garish production design ensure that the movie is a visual delight from beginning to end.
But while the window dressing is a marvel to look at, it is the central trio’s performances that elevate the movie to one of the year’s best. Emma Stone confirms why she is one of the premiere young actresses working today as she oscillates between waifish innocence as chilling ruthlessness in her own personal climb back up the social ladder. Meanwhile Rachel Weisz’s performance continues to show why she is a criminally underrated actress. As the frequently compromised Sarah, her role is arguably the toughest as she has to simultaneously play the villain as the one who effectively controls the throne but also be sympathetic as one who finds her uncharacteristic act of kindness come back to haunt her continually. The duel between the two is easily the most entertaining onscreen confrontation of the year.
However it is Olivia Colman’s role, as the eternally immature Queen Anne, who elevates their conflict into the level of absurdity. While it seems criminal to single out one role in this trio above the others (and in a perfect world we would just award a joint Best Actress Oscar to Stone, Weisz, and Colman), Colman just about edges it with her tragicomic performance here. She is at once monstrous, the epitome of a capricious ruling class who sees her subjects as objects for her entertainment. But she is also vulnerable as her years in power have led her to isolation and to becoming the butt of whispered jokes. Without Colman’s performance, the whole movie would simply be a farce, and a riotous one at that. But Colman brings a much-welcome modicum of humanity to this story, reminding us that the high-stakes royal court games being played here have real victims, and though she may look the part her Queen Anne is no fool.
Of course if there is one group who is bound to be disappointed, it will be those looking for anything resembling historical accuracy or some sort of moralistic lesson. Lanthimos could hardly be less interested in giving us the real Queen Anne. Instead this is simply a movie about horrible people doing horrible things to one another in ways that are both ingenious and cruel, and as such is an utter blast.
Runtime: 119 minutes
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Nicolas Hoult