Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has one of the most distinctive writing styles in cinema; characters in his films sound like aliens trying to work out how humans speak, and he mines laughter from their awkward, inane conversations in the most surreal circumstances. His films are often perceived as being cruel – his breakout 2009 film Dogtooth and his horror inflected 2017 effort The Killing of a Sacred Deer being the biggest offenders in this regard. But there’s such an unashamed oddness to his work, it becomes easy to be pulled in to his uniquely misanthropic worldview, even if his films make you want to rush for the exit.
The Favourite is something of a change of pace for Lanthimos. Not only is it the first time he’s adapted a screenplay he didn’t pen himself, with a comparatively muted surrealism compared to his previous films, it’s also the closest he’s got to crafting something that could be described as emotionally sincere. Sure, the love triangle at the film’s core isn’t immune to more than its fair share of petty bitchiness – but what’s more remarkable is that, once the bite from the acidic relationship between the two cousins vying for Queen Anne’s affections is removed, there’s an underlying sweetness hiding in plain sight. For those unaccustomed to Lanthimos’ previous films, this could be the perfect introduction to his work. It’s certainly the only one with the potential to be a crowd pleaser.
Set in the early 18th Century, Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), a former lady reduced to a life of poverty, moves to the palace of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) to find work as a servant. Her cousin, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) is already a loyal, unofficial second in command to the Queen, with a notable influence on politics that Queen Anne herself seems uninterested in – at one point, she confesses to having forgotten Britain is still at war with France.
After the Queen severely injures her leg, Abigail steals a horse to head to the forest to get some herbs to be used as a remedy. This act of kindness irritates Sarah, who initially banishes her from carrying out any further favours for the Queen, only for the Queen to discover she was responsible, making her a second “favourite” and demanding to spend more time with her. This is especially problematic for Sarah, who is having a secret romantic relationship with Queen Anne, and can see Abigail is trying to rise through the ranks trying to replace her in the Queen’s affections.
The Favourite is hysterical, but in a completely different way that we’ve come to expect from the filmmaker. Working with a more conventional screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, the laughs are far more broader than his previous work; he generates laughs from pratfalls and comic dance sequences, as well as interrupting tense arguments with the sound of ducks quacking in the distance. The screenplay is superbly written, but it’s easy to see how a less assured comedy director could have made physical comedy sequences like these appear cringe inducing in the worst possible way. Lanthimos manages to find a renewed weirdness in the most familiar jokes.
Whereas actors in Lanthimos films often feel like puppets stripped of their agency and subjecting themselves to his cruelest whims, the three lead performances in The Favourite are defined by their bold personalities. As Queen Anne, Olivia Colman once again proves that she’s never better than when finding a broken humanity inside of a conceivably horrible person, turning the vulnerable quirks of her characters into endearing, hilarious traits. This portrayal of the monarch is one stuck in emotional adolescence, falling into fits of jealousy just at the sight of her beloved “favourites” dancing with men, even as she’s equally trying to maintain sexual relationships with them both. She’s an impulsive, histrionic creation, and Colman makes her empathetic despite her many ghastly characteristics.
It should be noted that Anne’s sexuality has merely been an unconfirmed subject of speculation, due to the nature of letters exchanged between herself and Sarah. Here, the sequence of Abigail accidentally seeing her and Sarah go to bed together is a fictitious addition, and Lanthimos tries to make all sexual moments as surreal as possible to undercut any assumption that he’s definitively stating the sexuality of a woman not around to confirm it for herself. Naturally, the sexuality of the three women isn’t treated as a joke, but as with his previous films, he mines laughs from the odd manners in which his characters describe having sex.
Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are equally fantastic, with Stone arguably turning in the finest performance of her career so far. Whereas the affection Weisz’ Sarah Churchill is slowly proved to be more genuine than it initially appears, Stone’s feelings for the Queen are far more complicated – as the story progresses, the apparent simplicity becomes deceptive, as it is less clear as to whether she has genuine feelings, or is merely trying to rise through the ranks to regain her former status. Stone sheds her movie star persona to take on this complex role with aplomb.
The Favourite is a hilarious spin on historical events, but more unexpected is seeing Yorgos Lanthimos make a film with a recognisably human heart. It’s a beguiling take on the sexual politics of the era, and beneath the facade, is a quietly moving story of a love triangle doomed to fail on all sides.