If you’ve seen any of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous work, you probably already have a strong opinion about what the man does. Rarely does his work inspire a shrug or casual “meh” from a viewer, and you either hold the man up as a paragon of cinematic skill or you wish to see every print of every single one of his films burnt to a crisp. However, his latest work, the historical queer farce The Favourite, may very well change your opinion of him.
It’s unlike anything the director has done previously, and that may or may not be a bad thing depending on where you stand. I’m a pretty big fan of what Lanthimos has done previously, and think this film is excellent, so take that however you like — just don’t throw oranges at me, please. It is one of the year’s most intriguing films, and it very well may be one of its best.
It’s the early 18th Century in England, and a hard-up young woman named Abigail (Emma Stone), having struck out on her own, arrives at a palace owned by Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) in order to seek out a distant relation for some sort of work. This relative, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough, is a powerful woman who has the direct ear of the Queen and easily manipulates her in order to do what she wants — which is mainly to continue a perpetual war with France so that her husband can claim victory — and is Anne’s favourite (which means her right-hand woman) and secret lover. Sarah takes pity on the girl, and gives her work as a servant. Abigail, however, has her sights set on something more, and eventually she seizes upon an opportunity to improve her favor with the Queen, who is full of pain both physical — gout fucking blows! — and spiritual, as she’s lost enough children over the course of her life to populate a small kindergarten in the afterlife. After a brief flirtation over rabbits and dancing, the two begin an affair, and of course this upsets Sarah, who makes it her mission in life to destroy the young woman by whatever means. What follows involves poison, pineapples, and plenty of palace intrigue.
Lanthimos is well known as an aesthetic provocateur, but if you’re expecting something as shocking as his previous work, you may very well be disappointed. That’s not to say that the director is pulling his punches with The Favourite, but it’s more that he’s found a setting whose societal tics and heavy manners disguise more of the off-putting aspects of his prior work. The English court, with all of its stately rituals and entertainments, (made so surreal simply by the corrupting levels of wealth that allow them to take place) removes the sterility and artificiality in his exploration of interpersonal relationships and replaces them with period texture — duck races, orange fights, pigeon shooting — and the Barry Lyndon-esque richness found in every frame makes it visually unlike anything else he’s done before as well.
In some way, this represents a broadening of his scope — if The Lobster focused on the bizarro aspects of romance, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer honed in on the awkward pain of the American nuclear family, this film is a satire of power and what one must subject themselves to in order to get and maintain it. His humor has rarely been this obvious: Lanthimos has always made funny movies — Sacred Deer was one of the best comedies of 2017 as long as your audience was game to laugh at the prospect of Colin Farrell killing one of his kids — but this film finds himself embracing true slapstick, and genuinely succeeding at doing so. It’s still wonderfully raunchy as well, and Lanthimos’ bluntness as a writer serves him well here, given that his tact manages to cut through all of the stately bullshit.
This revelatory new approach to humor found in The Favourite is partially due to the plentiful talents of Stone, who gives a physical and often humiliating performance here, usually in concert with Nicholas Hoult (a scene in which Hoult “takes in the night air” with her is among the year’s funniest). Abigail is the butt of most of the film’s jokes, mainly because of her station: She’s a commoner trying to make her way up the ranks to reassert herself, and finds herself the target of all of the abuse and distrust that only the legacy rich can bestow upon the upwardly mobile. It’s hard not to slightly root for her, given the Rachel Weisz-shaped roadblock standing in her way to wealth, but she’s never written or played as an angel, which keeps us at an arms length and allows her follies and foibles to remain entertaining. Weisz is the straight woman here, who controls the game and all of its pieces until they’re eventually pulled away from her, and her scheming, while occasionally insightful, is made interesting through its effects on the other two leads.
Sarah’s eventual third-act absence and climactic return allow Weisz to take her hair down somewhat comparatively when she does show up again, but she’s mainly a stabilizing agent caught between the slapsticky Stone and the wild Colman, who is by far the film’s standout. There are hundreds of ways one can approach the role of a demented monarch — just look at the theatrical legacy of King Lear — but Colman forges her own path and manages to find a way to make Anne sympathetic (a hard enough feat when it comes to a monarch). Here, it’s The Madness of King George filtered through the alienating wealth of Roeg’s Man Who Fell to Earth. She never goes for the easy laugh, and emphasizes how genuinely unwell she is: She’s a creature beholden to her urges, easily swayed by the advice of those she fancies, and she’s in possession of unlimited power. This is a combination of factors that would rot even the keenest mind, and her eventual downfall comes from these tragic flaws, a mental havoc that destroys everything in its wake. It’s a truly stunning performance by the always-reliable comic actor, and Lanthimos uses it as a rock to build his film on. The Favourite is nothing if not an actor’s showcase, and it’s easy to recommend based on that virtue alone, but boy is it a pleasure to watch, to laugh at, to be disturbed by in the closing minutes. It’s an experience well-worth having. Featured image by Yorgos Lanthimos via 20th Century Fox.