Director Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film is certainly more commercial than his past projects, which include 2015’s The Lobster and 2017’s The Killing of A Sacred Deer, but it retains his signature unsettling, mildly surrealist tone. The Favourite is a historical drama that plays with convention, both in story and technique: there are white powdered wigs and gorgeous corseted gowns galore, but also an absolutely batshit dance sequence, and fish-eyed lens shots that make the whole thing feel more like Alice in Wonderland post-”Drink Me” potion than a staid period piece.
Welcome to the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) circa the early 18th century. England’s War of the Spanish Succession against France is in full swing, and at home, rival political factions are vying for control of the government and the queen’s attention. It’s against this backdrop that Deborah Davis’ and Tony McNamara’s script, based on true events, paints the gaudy bubble within which our conniving protagonists operate.
A real life Queen of Hearts (she even plays croquet indoors), Anne vacillates between manic energy and the deepest throes of depression. In one scene, she screams at a young usher to look at her, and then immediately reverses course, and shrieks at him to look away. It’s hilarious, but also tragic, and Colman toes the line beautifully, creating an inner world for her character that puts us squarely on her side. This is a woman with immense power to rule over the lives of her subjects, but she can’t even rule herself. For that, she relies on her chosen companion, Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), the titular favorite, who governs in all but name.
Weisz is both intensely alluring and terrifyingly vicious. (She’s also the only actress in Hollywood who could somehow appear more beautiful with a gash across her face.) She’s grown used to power, and wields it confidently, compelling Anne to sign off on her decisions, and her spending, to the dismay of the political opposition, headed by Tory leader Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult, a shameless dandy in a towering wig). But she also feels genuine affection for her friend (and, as we discover later, her lover). She rubs Anne’s legs when she’s afflicted with gout, tells her when her makeup looks more “badger” than smokey eye, and races her down the palace’s impossibly long corridors in a wheelchair when she’s feeling unwell. Still, she takes her position for granted.
That’s where Abigail (Emma Stone) comes in. A distant cousin of Sarah’s whose family has fallen on hard times, she’s employed as a servant first, before wheedling her way into Anne’s good graces, with some help from Harley, who sees that the only way to dethrone Sarah is to replace her with another, potentially more friendly favorite. And so, the battle of wits begins.
The arrival of Abigail is when this movie takes an All About Eve turn. Stone has impeccable comedic timing, and clearly relishes playing this shrewd and ruthless woman. Her courtship with beautiful idiot Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) is mesmerizing, culminating in a sequence where she has to physically evade his lunges, as they tousle in the crisp, muddy autumn leaves. It’s a fascinating dynamic, because Abigail is in control the whole time. (It’s that sense of authority that her character has over her own fate that pushed Stone to shed her clothes for her first nude scene, in which Sarah finds Abigail in bed with Anne, adding another layer to their rivalry.)
Bubbling under The Favourite’s decadent surface is a barely suppressed tsunami of female rage that threatens to drown the entire country in its wake. In another film, this could easily come off as an indictment of women’s ambition, but Lanthimos revels in his heroines, never judging them, especially in their intricate battles. There’s no villain in this story, just whoever happens to be winning at any given moment. It’s a treatise on power, so rarely shown through the lense of not just one woman, but three.
The constantly shifting allegiances are reflected in cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s camera work, which has us constantly on the move, following one character, then another, sometimes sprinting from corner to corner, on the hunt for secrets.
Lanthimos punctuates this deft satire with a dash of the truly absurd. One scene has a group of be-wigged lords throwing ripe fruit at a naked man in a pink wig for no apparent reason. Such moments underscore the overall whiff of decay, of a ruling class so over the top that nothing works as it should. The use of classic composers like Handel, Bach and Vivaldi alongside modern works by Olivier Messiaen and Anna Meredith adds to this tense feeling of a world upside down.
Still, the movie isn’t unfeeling. Colman never lets Anne veer too far into the comic without tugging her back with some tragic admission, like when she tells Abigail that her 17 pet rabbits that drive everyone crazy represent the 17 children she’s lost. Moments like that spear you in place, a reminder that this isn’t just some kooky lady, but a woman whose grief has driven her a little mad.
In the end, after all the infighting, simpering, backstabbing and false flattery by the woman who love both her, and the opportunity she represents, Anne’s the one who holds all the power, but has the least taste for it. All hail the Queen.