Along with its other wicked attractions, The Favourite serves as a corrective to all those fluffy period movies where pretty costumes and set design function as the cinematic equivalent of a bubble bath. The art direction is plenty handsome here, too, and the film will likely collect a few Oscars for its physical production. But The Favourite uses its lavish backdrops in order to show off the nastiest sides of human behavior—this is a beautiful dinner spread with a rat as its centerpiece.
We’re in England in the first years of the 18th century, during the reign of Queen Anne. The widowed queen (played by the formidable Olivia Colman) is an unhappy woman, bedeviled by illness and haunted by the fact that her 17 pregnancies have resulted in no living heir. Her one solace is an intense relationship with Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), the Queen’s political advisor, life coach, and, at times, intimate companion. Into this stable environment comes Sarah’s relative Abigail (Emma Stone), whose once-noble family has fallen so far that Abigail is now a humble chambermaid. But not for long.
Abigail has Sarah’s strategic instincts but also her own fierce hunger, bred by a lifetime of desperation; when Sarah realizes the threat to her privileged place at court, the game is on. Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s screenplay tracks the rivalry between these two cunning operators as they vie to be the Queen’s right-hand woman. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos seizes this cynical scenario and plays it as powdered, bewigged roller derby, complete with bruises and blood. Since breaking into prominence with the sinister Dogtooth, Lanthimos has carved a place as a leading perpetrator of morbidly fascinating films, notably The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. In The Favourite, he deploys disorienting wide-angle lenses and kinky sex games to upend any possibility of a stately historical film.
We should stress here that The Favourite plays very successfully as black comedy, even if the laughs frequently freeze in our throats. This includes the back-and-forth involving England’s political life, which sometimes hangs on whether the Queen is having an attack of gout—or, more frequently, whether Sarah or Abigail have provided advice along with leg massages. Hey, the Queen likes what she likes. The men at court are mostly duplicitous boobs, ably played by the likes of Nicholas Hoult (Mad Max: Fury Road) and Joe Alwyn, but occasionally we are reminded that this is a man’s world even if the women temporarily hold power.
This kind of movie is an actor’s feast, and Oscar winners Stone and Weisz gorge themselves on the possibilities; they’re strong enough for the chicanery, and smart enough to suggest the panic beneath the bravado. Veteran English actress Colman (memorable in The Lobster) is expert at switching from infantile helplessness to regal cruelty. It’s a truly skilled—if sometimes repulsive—performance. If The Favourite falls short of greatness, it’s because the film’s very clever depiction of rottenness can be a little too unrelieved, a hammer to the brainpan. To visit a world in which the leaders are vapid fools and their advisors self-serving charlatans is to be overwhelmed by the senselessness of it all, and the awful waste of human potential. But then you already know that feeling.