A damning indictment of power and leisure, and their ability to completely corrupt our most august institutions and the very notion of country.
An 18th century period piece starring distinguished and Oscar-winning actors smells like safe awards-season fodder, doesn’t it? But while The Favourite may walk away with several nominations if not victories, the latest from Yorgos Lanthimos isn’t exactly a crowd-pleaser. The Greek director has previously led actors through self-consciously mannered dialogue in such black comedies as The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, yet this historical pageant is not a mere play for respectable company. Working from a screenplay co-written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, the brooding auteur puts his signature stiffness to a more appropriate milieu and lets the bitter juice fly naturally without dulling his misanthropic knives one bit.
Uneasy lies the crown on Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), whose people are at war with the French again. Frail and prone to attacks of gout, Her Majesty is ineffective, and the real matter of governing falls on her friend Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough who pulls strings on the figurehead while the men of the court pass the time racing ducks for money.
Into this scenario of opulent trash comes Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), whose aristocratic family has fallen on hard times (her father lost her in a card game). The visitor hopes to work for the Queen and restore her family’s stature, but since Abigail shows up at the Royal Palace reeking of ordure (“They shit in the street around here,” a servant explains, “Political commentary they call it.”), she has to earn her way up to the Queen’s favor. Which she does, with a cunning tongue and wicked machinations that plow through her rival with no remorse.
Cinematographer Robbie Ryan, whose extensive c.v. includes the raw impressionistic footage of American Honey, is practically co-director here, using fish-eye and other wide-angle lenses that require violent whip-pans to shift between characters in the palace’s massive, well-appointed rooms. As if aware of these frequently distorted optics, Harley (Nicholas Hoult), 1st Earl of Oxford, remarks that the court itself is distorted, and he ain’t kidding. Between duck races and a game of naked pomegranate dodgeball, not to mention the real reason behind the Queen’s preference for Sarah, the nation’s heart beats in a most corrupt body.
Co-screenwriter Davis worked from Sarah’s memoir as well as letters between Sarah and Anne and Abigail and Harley, fleshing out hints of the ruthlessness behind her poor cousin’s rise from chambermaid to a position of some power. Yet you don’t need to be familiar with the details of the court and its politics to savor, or wince, at the increasingly vicious rivalry between Favourites. This is a story of women in power, plying their sexual and political wares to reign over a land that essentially, as a disorienting final image suggests, is made up of no more than helpless bunny rabbits.
Co-writer Tony McNamara argues in the film’s press materials, “The story is about how complicated love is.” But Lanthimos, in what may be his strongest film to date, makes The Favourite about something far more than sex. It’s a damning indictment of power and leisure, and their ability to completely corrupt our most august institutions and the very notion of country.