With The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, director Yorgos Lanthimos has chiseled out a reputation for crafting comedies out of the darkest corners of human experience. Loneliness, jealousy, betrayal and death are his pathways to startling hilarity. Thus, the laughs he earns burst forth as shocked guffaws and obscene barks, as if our joy in the face of such misery is a rude jolt to even ourselves. Admirers of Lanthimos’ twisted humor have new reason to revel. With his most captivating cast yet, he’s created The Favourite, a deranged look at sex and politics within the court of Queen Anne.
Set in 18thcentury England, The Favourite centers on a volatile lesbian love triangle. Plagued by illness and personal tragedy, the aging Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is in no state to rule her kingdom as it wages war with France. While she spends her days racing lobsters, designing palaces, and raising rabbits, she relies on her childhood friend and most trusted advisor Sarah (Rachel Weisz) to manage the kingdom. With sharp eyes and a sharper smirk, lady Sarah is at complete ease whether plotting battle plans, frolicking at an elaborate ball, or remorselessly mocking her political rivals. But her connection to the queen runs deeper than the professional or platonic. And their secret Sapphic relationship is threatened when Sarah’s social-climbing cousin arrives at court.
With rosy cheeks flecked with freckles, and a lovely gown caked in excrement, Abigail (Emma Stone) is every inch the lady fallen on hard luck. Looking to claw her way back from her family’s disgrace, she begs for even the lowliest job. But her broad smile hides a mean ambition. Clever like her cousin, Abigail is keen to catch the eye of the queen. And so a ruthless rivalry begins, which leads to shots fired, shade thrown, and some deliciously vicious sabotage.
Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone
The hysterical script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara is barbed with vicious wit and audacious insults. A bored maid explains with a shrug, “They shit in the streets here. They a call it ‘political commentary.'” Lady Sarah briskly dismisses her political nemesis Lord Hartley (a hilarious and nearly unrecognizable Nicholas Hoult) by declaring the perfumed dandy smells like a “79-year-old French woman’s juju.” Though there are men about court, it’s the women who dominate the palace and this narrative. And their cutting candor feels delicious in its subversion. This is a too rare tale of women behaving very badly. And Lanthimos’s leading ladies relish every moment, tearing into these meaty roles with an exhilarating ferocity.
In the UK, Colman has long been recognized as an impeccable actress, who can deftly leap from the trenchant drama of Broadchurch or Tyrannosaur to the madcap comedy of Peep Show or Lanthimos’s The Lobster. But The Favourite might be the film that at long last displays to American audiences her dexterity in both. As the mercurial Queen Anne, Colman gives one of the best performances of an already stellar career. In some moments, she is a clown. With harsh black eye shadow that makes her “look like a badger,” she bellows petulantly at the poor servant boy who dares witness her embarrassment. With a childish enthusiasm, she pits Sarah and Abigail against each other, hungry for attention and giddy for playmates. But this script has a tender heart at its core, and Colman captures it with heartbreaking exhibitions of grief and regret.
In a scene that feels central to Lanthimos’s style, this sorrowful royal binge eats a pretty blue cake. With her face and hair matted with its crumbs and icing, this seeming fantasy feels festered and pathetic. We empathize with her dejection, yet still might chuckle as she vomits that pretty cake into the finely polish silver urn, presented by a stoic servant. Beneath the lavish production design rich with tapestries, carved wood, and laser-cut leather bodices, there is a slick of the disgusting, like the shit smeared on a fine gown, the pus leaked on bed sheets, or the vomit in a vase. These elements puncture the glamor of court living, revealing its unctuous underbelly, and urge us to have empathy, even as we laugh at these women, even if they are merciless, mirthless, and covered in muck.
Weisz (who also co-starred in The Lobster) is riveting, and Colman’s perfect scene partner. Where Anne is soft and sloppy, Sarah is hard and strategic. To the court, she’s the impenetrable wall that shields the queen from all others, for better or worse. Her stride is confident. Her speaking manner piercing and unapologetic. Her rationalizing remorseless. But when the two are alone, Sarah exposes a playfulness and warmth that makes it easy to see how this pair fell together in the first place. But make no mistake: Weisz is at her best when warring with her onscreen cousin, wielding sharp words and pointed implications like a saber.
To be frank, it’s expected that Weisz and Colman will slay this script. Both are actresses heralded for their gravitas and range. Which makes the Oscar-winning Emma Stone the unlikely wild card here. Though she’s occasionally played snarky, this admired American actress is chiefly known for being the beaming ingénue, enchanting and dancing and lovely. In The Favourite, Stone uses that persona to her advantage, initially spinning Abigail as exactly the kind of heroine she’s played so many times before: cheery, smart, sometimes sarcastic, but never truly cruel. Except here, she finds herself “capable of much unpleasantness.” As the story heats up, Stone shifts from her sunny disposition to something darker, more complicated and positively mesmerizing. Whether she’s coyly kicking a courtier in the crotch, brazenly seducing the queen, or falling face first into some “political commentary,” Stone is game and glorious.
All told, The Favourite is fascinating, ferociously funny, and hands down one of the best films of the year. With a salacious story, a scandalously hilarious script, and a cast of charismatic stars, Lanthimos has crafted his most accessible movie yet. Which is not to say it’s for everyone. This is still a deeply caustic comedy that will make you wince as much as laugh. And what a terrible treat that is!
The Favourite was the opening night film of the 56thNew York Film Festival.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com