What's So Refreshing About 'The Favourite'

‘The Favourite’ is a razor-sharp comedy, sophisticated, brimming with life – and above all, relevant

Emma Stone and Olivia Colman in "The Favourite."
Yorgos Lanthimos / Fox Searchlig

I’ve always found the work of the Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos – “Dogtooth,” “The Lobster,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” – interesting and estimable, and each film has left me curious about what he’ll do next. The one thing the pictures didn’t arouse was sympathy. There was something pretentious about them, something harrowing, cruel, even threatening. In other words, they were films I didn’t want to see again. Yet the director’s new picture, “The Favourite,” which, like the others, has also drawn sweeping critical praise and which also contains a measure of sordidness and cruelty, turns out to be a razor-sharp period comedy that is well-written (by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara), skillfully directed, and flaunts the talent of three excellent actresses. In short, for the first time, a Lanthimos film brought me sheer enjoyment.

“The Favourite” is different from most British historical films. If they tend to be fossilized, this picture is brimming with life, even if that life is flagrantly malicious. Among previous period films, “The Favourite” at times reminded me of Peter Greenaway’s “The Draughtsman’s Contract” (1982), and of “The Madness of King George” (1994), directed by Nicholas Hytner and based on a play by Alan Bennett. Without exception, every review of “The Favourite” has referred to “All About Eve” (1950), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, which although set in the New York theater world, has plotline similarities with Lanthimos’ film.

“The Favourite” takes place at the beginning of the 18th century in the palace of Queen Anne and to some extent in the surrounding areas. The palace itself is magnificent, its inhabitants less so. The men who hover around the queen, for example, young and old alike, are heavily made up and wear those ridiculous white wigs. When not engaged in the kingdom’s intrigues, they take part in grotesque social games. The queen herself is cut off from her surroundings. She suffers from various maladies and hardly leaves her bed, in a room she shares with 17 rabbits, representing, for her, the number of miscarriages she has had. She resembles a clown and looks like a lump of flesh (at times her appearance reminded me of Jabba in “Return of the Jedi”), but gradually, thanks to Olivia Colman’s savvy performance, she succeeds in touching the heart.

The queen’s daily life and the political maneuvering required of a regent are managed by Lady Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who also provides the queen’s sexual pleasure. Sarah effectively rules the kingdom and decides for Queen Anne whether the pointless war with France will continue and whether taxes should be raised.

Sarah’s position deteriorates following the arrival of her cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), who was once a lady herself, until her father gambled away all his money. In one case, he bet on her, too, and lost. The queen employs Abigail as a maid. She appears to be a pleasant, young, submissive woman, but in reality that is hardly the case. Her goal is to get Sarah ousted and take her place in the life – and the bed – of the queen, who develops a fondness for her.

A feeling of anachronism

The main storyline involves a war of minds that develops between the two cousins as they vie for their place in the royal hierarchy. They are both strong, intelligent women, to whom maliciousness is not foreign. Abigail also maneuvers among the men in the palace who are courting her and finally marries the handsomest – and most stupid – of them (Joe Alwyn). Their wedding night is undoubtedly one of the most amusing, and cruelest, romantic scenes I’ve ever seen on the screen.

Lanthimos’ picture succeeds in gaining momentum because it’s like a black joke at the expense of every administration at any time, certainly in today’s era of leadership crises. As such, “The Favourite” does not purport to reconstruct meticulously its period setting – neither linguistically (would Queen Anne really have used the term “Fuck me” when telling Sarah to get into her bed with her?) nor musically – the music is classical, underscoring the disparity between the elegant and the squalid, and contemporary as well. That historical meticulousness is often detrimental to British period films, weighing them down. “The Favourite,” in contrast, is rife with a feeling of anachronism, which imbues it with a light tone, intensifies its comic thrust and illustrates the fact that every attempt to reconstruct a historical period is inherently dubious and that its value derives from its relevance to the present.

There are some excellent scenes in the film, such as the attempt by Sarah and Abigail to prove to each other who is the stronger via a competition to shoot pigeons; and there are dialogues whose blunt directness leaves them etched in the memory. A case in point is the conversation between Abigail and her intended when he enters her room for the first time. “Are you coming to seduce me or rape me?” Abigail asks the embarrassed young man, and when he replies, “I’m a gentleman,” she says, “So, rape then.” That may not be in the best taste or politically correct, but good taste and political correctness aren’t part of the reality depicted in the film, or of the film itself. Are they part of a certain present-day administration?

Beautifully shot by Robbie Ryan in 35 mm film, “The Favourite” vividly plays up the disparity between the heft and luxury of the palace and the pettiness of its intrigues. Sandy Powell’s costume design is almost certain to garner her a fourth Oscar, and the production design and set decoration will win gilded statuettes, too. The film has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and it won’t surprise me if Olivia Colman wins as well, at the expense of Lady Gaga and Glenn Close (it’s the seventh nomination for Close, who has yet to win). Colman gives a courageous performance that works on a number of levels, which enrich the character from scene to scene, even if this involves her having a hard time swallowing, eating and immediately throwing up.

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone – the latter is the only American of the trio – are also excellent, especially Weisz, who this time makes particularly sophisticated use of the restraint that characterizes her performances. The two, both former Oscar winners, are also nominees this year, in the category of best supporting actress – but when two actors or actresses from the same movie are nominated in the same category, both usually lose, because the votes are divided between them.

“The Favourite” is a sophisticated work, and if I felt a sense of recoil at Lanthimos’ previous films but was curious about his next projects, this time the curiosity is heightened – with no accompanying recoil.