In several important ways, The Favourite is a departure for director Yorgos Lanthimos. This film is his first costume drama; in fact, all the important characters were important figures in English history. The other, more crucial departure is that this is the first film Lanthimos did not also write. Lanthimos is a misanthrope, and his characters reflect that (for better or worse). The characters here are not his own, so he can only convey his misanthropy through his style and filmmaking gifts. This creates an agreeable tension to the film, which starts as a historical drama ends as a celebration of the character’s sheer wickedness.
Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne, the last monarch of the House of Stuart, and when we meet her, she is already in decline. Aside from being unable to produce an heir, Anne famously went mad, so her court had to manage her more than the typical English king or queen. Her greatest confidante is the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), a shrewd manipulator who hides her feelings with a prickly sense of humor. When the Duchess’ cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) first arrives, she is no major threat, but it turns out Abigail has schemes of her own. She makes herself indispensable to Anne, and this leads to a quiet war between her the Duchess, while decisions over the actual Queen Anne’s War happen in the background.
Oh, dear, that sounds stuffy, doesn’t it? Not to worry – the script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara is delightfully modern: all the characters swear constantly, and they insult each other with glee, almost like what you would expect from Armando Iannucci. Lanthimos also does not film The Favourite like a typical costume drama. He deploys frequent fisheye lenses, with his camera spinning around the court in an irreverent way. His camera literally cuts through the typical lines of pomp and circumstance, giving the actors and action a freedom that stodgy costume dramas rarely achieve.
We learn there is a romantic and sexual component to the triangle between Anne, the Duchess, and Abigail. To the film’s credit, none of these three announce they prefer women. Like all things in The Favourite, sex is one arrow in their quiver (political popularity and verbal wit are also preferred). No one gets to say what they think, except for Anne whose whims grow increasingly erratic. Therefore, there is a gnawing question over how much is an act, and how much of what they say is sincere. The screenwriters and Lanthimos mostly avoid answering this question, except in quick lapses when the characters let their guard down. This approach to the action makes us naturally more curious, so part of the film’s suspense is parsing out all the schemes, disappointments, and betrayals.
All three of the leads give excellent performances, although they are quite different. Colman is broadly appealing as a woman whose privilege has gotten the better of her. There is a running gag where she makes a request of her servant, then yells at them for complying. Coupled with a constant sense of depression and paranoia, Anne is more than a handful for everyone at court (an erratic, mercurial leader that everyone must tolerate also has political relevance nowadays). Weisz is a smooth operator – brittle and mean – while Stone is more like an ingénue who learns the depths of her treachery. The film’s best scenes involving Stone/Weisz sparring, often while they’re skeet shooting actual live birds. Their respective outfits (Stone wears dresses, while Weisz prefers slacks) are reflections of their natures, but the real fireworks are the war of words where each wound is invisible.
Lanthimos is not a subtle director. His misanthropy almost rivals Kubrick, but he has more in common with Peter Greenaway, an English filmmaker who used high society and garish production values to expose the raw ugliness lurking underneath. Like Greenaway, Lanthimos skewers these characters in an unsparing way, except he sometimes lets his camera linger long enough so we can briefly empathize with everyone’s misery. Some of his metaphors are heavy-handed, too: Anne loves rabbits, for one thing, and their position in the frame practically blares what we are supposed to think of the action. That heavy-handed commentary is infrequent, unlike the director’s other work, so The Favourite succeeds as the nastiest high stakes workplace comedy you’ll see all year.