With The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos offers less of an abrupt change from his previous films than a (Greek?) olive branch. The staccato, exact line readings and bizarre scenarios of The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer are ostensibly replaced with crisp but hardly dense period dialogue and a straightforward pitch black comedy set in the royal palace of England in the early 1700s. Perhaps it’s a function of turning writing duties over to other hands (Debra Davis and Tom McNamara), perhaps it’s the conscious choice to let his stars relax and play the parts more naturalistically, but in any case he’s landed on something approaching broad appeal with this female centric examination of power, love and cruelty. However, it’s not all that far off from Lanthimos’ usual examinations of people’s darker impulses, though; The Favourite is very much a natural continuation of what he’s been discussing with his films for years now. With a fierce cast, lush production design and tight pace, The Favourite deserves not only awards seasons accolades but large audiences as well.
Which is not to indicate it’s a teaspoon of sugar by any measure. As mentioned, the film is about power: The power dynamics of a society in which people can pass from the heights of royal luxury to being whipped like a dog in the blink of an eye. Emma Stone’s Abigail is intimately familiar with this as we meet her, being molested and shoved into shit as she ventures to the Queen’s castle in search of a distant relative who may be able to return her to a decent level of status after her father’s fall from grace has left her penniless and, worse, low class. Queen Ann, played with equal doses of sadness and mania by Olivia Coleman, is traumatized by loss and bears an almost Trumpian distaste for the details of her job. Fortunately she has Lady Sarah, her top advisor, companion, and truth serum, brought to life by a delightfully arch Rachel Weisz. Sarah gets to manage the political turmoil around a war with France while keeping up the appearance of the Queen’s supremacy, then her distant cousin arrives meekly seeking any employment available—which is of course to say Abigail is on a stealth mission to regain her lost stature. With these three powerful personalities increasingly wrapped up in each other’s orbits, the tension and gamesmanship quickly take their toll, which is reflected throughout in the increasingly frayed faces of the women (keep an eye on those faces—their evolutions provide one of the many visual treats on display).
Whereas Lanthimos cleans up some of the eccentricities of his prior works here, he still carries a deeply held distrust of and disgust with man’s selfishness and general misanthropy—it feels no accident that there’s about as much vomiting as sex in The Favourite. This satire of class ends as most of his previous films have, in a place where no good deed’s been done without ulterior motive, every act of seeming kindness comes with a sharp dagger hidden under voluptuous finery. I’m not sure if this is a new direction for the filmmaker or simply a refinement of his sardonic vision. In any case, it’s a smart, entertaining and nasty little marvel of a movie, one that may not light the box office on fire but one that will only grow in esteem as more viewers discover it.