Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous English-language features, the absurdist black comedy The Lobster and the modern Greek tragedy The Killing of a Sacred Deer, abound in grim humor and amusingly odd conceits, but they’re both compromised by a scattershot, self-indulgent approach to storytelling. By comparison, The Favourite, notably the first of Lanthimos’s films to be written by others, is more narratively coherent and conventional, but Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s florid screenplay still affords the Greek Weird Wave auteur ample opportunity to assert his idiosyncratic worldview.
Set in the early 18th century, and loosely grounded in fact, The Favourite stars Olivia Colman as a gout-ridden, childishly temperamental, and deeply unhappy Queen Anne, who relies almost entirely on her closest confidante and clandestine lover, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), to oversee her affairs of state. When Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), who’s endured a life of hardship as a result of her father’s gambling addiction, arrives at the royal household at Kensington Palace ostensibly in search of gainful employment, she’s set to work as a servant. It’s not long before she discovers the true scandalous nature of Sarah’s relationship with the queen, and, spotting an opportunity to work this knowledge to her considerable advantage, she mounts an aggressive campaign to seduce the monarch herself.
This is perhaps the most playfully subversive costume drama since Whit Stillman’s similarly verbose Love & Friendship, though this is a considerably racier affair, laden as it is with eye-wateringly explicit exchanges. The film also recalls Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette in its sly anachronistic flourishes; a particular comic highlight is a staid formal dance that evolves into something more closely resembling a voguing contest. More surprisingly, there are occasional shades of Albert Serra’s somber The Death of Louis XIV in the unflinching fixation on the queen’s increasingly diseased and defective body.
The Favourite’s biggest revelation may be that Lanthimos treats his characters here with a degree of compassion, rather than regard them with his usual smirking indifference. When the opening scene draws attention to the fact that the queen keeps 17 caged rabbits in her bedroom, it feels like an inconsequential quirky detail. But when the heartbreaking reason for this is later revealed, it affords Colman the opportunity to transform Anne in an instant from grotesque caricature to fully formed tragic figure. Meanwhile, the tension between Sarah and Abigail gradually escalates until they’re circling each other like dueling wild animals. Especially riveting is how Lanthimos foregrounds the contrasting approaches each woman takes to furthering her interests: Sarah is directly combative, while Abigail maintains an air of sweetness and decorum even as her scheming grows diabolical.
When it comes to exploring this uneasy love triangle, it initially appears as if Lanthimos is interested more in the weaponization of female sexuality than the expression of heartfelt lesbian desire. But despite Abigail’s ulterior motive, there’s a moving tenderness to her courtship of the queen, which comes to stand in stark contrast to Sarah’s matronly bedside manner. And while it’s emphasized that public knowledge of the trio’s private antics would cause huge problems for all concerned, the film maintains a pleasingly sex-positive perspective. When Sarah compels Anne to sever contact with Abigail, the queen nonchalantly replies, “I like it when she puts her tongue inside me.”
While the film is at its most satisfying when focused on the private antics of the three key players, also of note is Nicholas Hoult’s sublime supporting turn as Robert Harley, a powdered, petulant young minister who fancies himself as a Machiavellian schemer but who arrogantly underestimates the women he hopes to manipulate. Robert’s presence broadens the scope of the film beyond the claustrophobic confines of the royal court, as he relays tales of mounting public opposition to the queen, on account of her decision to raise taxes (at Sarah’s behest) to continue waging war on France. Ultimately, this all amounts to little more than stakes-raising window dressing, but it’s refreshing to see a Lanthimos film take place in something approaching the real world, rather than the hermetically sealed alternate realities of his previous films.
Still, The Favourite grants itself the right to smugness from time to time, namely throughout scenes that see the characters spouting overwritten witticisms in opulent candlelit rooms, while DP Robbie Ryan’s camera swoops ostentatiously all over the place. And after a satisfyingly twisty middle act which appears to be building to some sort of audacious final reveal, the story wraps up a little abruptly, resulting in a muted denouement. But Lanthimos brings the film back to life with a memorable lingering final shot, ensuring that this bawdy romp ends on an unexpectedly haunting note.