Yorgos Lanthimos is known for crafting films that do a lot with a very specific tone. His surrealist, and yet deathly serious tone is the kind of thing that can really put a viewer off, but I’ve loved his movies so far. Dogtooth, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer are all similarly unsettling and strange in his own very specific way. The Favourite sees Lanthimos’s take on the stuffy period drama. But that’s not really what it is either. It’s a Lanthimos movie dressed up as a stuffy period piece. It’s at once hilariously acidic, terribly uncomfortable and deeply sad, occasionally all at once.
In the early 18th century, England is at war with France and Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) sits on the throne. Anne’s good friend and more, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) governs the country in her stead and tends to the Queen’s various illnesses and delusions of grandeur. One day, Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) shows up and is employed by Sarah as a servant. Abigail’s family has fallen on tough times, and she intends to improve her own situation. The Queen is gradually charmed by Abigail and Sarah begins to fear she may have ulterior motives. A battle of the ‘favourites’ is on.
Lanthimos’ characters speak to each other like people never speak to each other. It’s full of cruel, vicious dialogue in hushed, muted tones, and sometimes you second guess what you just heard. And while his films take their time to get there, they all eventually wow you with a third act that leaves you amused, but also a bit disturbed. And The Favourite is no different. In fact, it might be his best work to date. This is a movie about what women have to do to obtain power and to stay in power. It doesn’t feel strictly tied down to this period, because a story like this could be rewritten in any time period. The men in this story are useless – all of them pawns that a woman is using to further her own agenda. When that kind of thing is done right, it can be monstrously joyous to behold. The script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara is stinging, riotously funny and icepick sharp. Lanthimos takes the trappings of the stuffy period movie, ultimately makes it feel like a shrewd parody of the genre. It establishes an urgent, absurdist tone and a scene rarely plays out the way you expect it to.
It’s rounded out by a trio of bravura performances. Olivia Colman, of the BBC’s Broadchurch, and other television programs in the UK, really should get more leading work in film. Her Queen Anne is initially seen as this erratic tyrant who has no business being the Queen, and then she flips the script and seems completely different. She’s also allowed a rich and tragic backstory, and the relationship between her and Lady Sarah feels real and established. While these two are bickering and backstabbing each other at most turns, you definitely feel like there’s an undercurrent of emotional honesty to their relationship, and a mutual understanding over the years they’ve known each other.
Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are both fantastic, and both deserve Oscar nominations. Both have proven themselves than capable of carrying a film on their own, but together, they’re dynamite. The way that these two rivals play off each other that is fundamental to the success of the film. Sarah and Abigail are each seen as sniping, bitter rivals even though their relationship also has a real emotional foundation to it. As cruel and vicious as these two are to each other, it dawns on the viewer that while this is fun to watch, it’s ultimately quite sad.
These three actresses have taken to the Lanthimos signature off-kilter, immediate tone very well. The nastier this story gets, the more fun it becomes to watch. Every element of this production – the costumes, the production design, the screenplay, the direction, the music and most importantly, the acting, is top notch. The Favourite is one of the very best films of 2018.