With movies like Dogtooth, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer on his CV, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos crafts singular, alluring, if often cold and standoffish films. With his latest, The Favourite, he delivers his most accessible, warmest offering to date. Not without its own oddities, peculiarities, and the filmmaker’s trademark strangeness, it’s anchored by next-level performances; lush, intricate costume and production design; and will serve as an entry point for many into his cannon.
Set in 18th England, as the British war with France, The Favourite revolves around a fragile, ailing Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) and her BFF and trusted advisor, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz). When Abigail (Emma Stone), an ambitious servant with a courtly past, arrives on the scene, it changes the equation and sews the seeds of bedlam.
A deliciously wicked power struggle flip flops traditional gender roles—the men are foppish and gossip-hungry, while the women are ruthless and mad for influence. It’s all love and betrayal and the sharp, devious machinations of political, romantic, and lustful intrigue at court. The script from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara layers quippy, weighted dialogued, all delivered with devilish intent. A line like, “All I know is your carriage awaits and my maid is on the way up with something called a pineapple” stands as both a vicious and flippant dismissal.
Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan (American Honey) film everything in an off-kilter fish-eye/wide-angle style. Combined with the meticulous, sprawling sets and intricate, delicate costumes, this approach lends the whole production a sumptuous sense of the surreal. Frequent Lanthimos collaborator Johnnie Burn’s score—a taught, tense mix of period appropriate organs and spinal cord tweaking strings—enhances this feel that ranges from strange and other worldly to farcical yet oddly contemporary.
But for everything else, for all the details and designs and stylistics, the performances take center stage. Weisz and Stone play a vicious, devious game, positioning and repositioning themselves at the queen’s side, angling for an advantage, jockeying for status. They deliver each line with malicious intent, coy and innocuous on the outside, loaded with devastating subtext and intent. Nicholas Hoult’s daft, conniving politician brings levity and serves as an empty-headed counterpoint to their maneuverings—the men think they’re tricky and cunning, but they can’t hold a candle to the manipulation and scheming of the women.
As fantastic as the surrounding players are, Coleman steals every scene. She evolves from over-the-top and cartoonish, to heartbreaking in her deterioration, to ultimately showing how she’s stayed on top all this time and why she’s really in charge, despite the high cost. We’re talking haunt-your-dreams good, and this performance is one we’ll be talking about for a long, long time to come.
Ultimately, I’m not sure what The Favourite amounts to, but it’s one hell of a gleeful, devilish, wit-riddled ride. Lanthimos delivers a stylish, scrupulous period piece that toys with convention, provides hilarious highs and soul-crushing lows, and is a shrewd, astute, slick film from credits to credits. The closest comparison point I can come up with is Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, with the detail, the eroticism—though to a lesser degree—and overall construction. At the very least, they would make an excellent double feature. [Grade: A-]