The Favourite has a little something for everyone. Palace intrigue! Double crosses! Fancy clothes! Scathing social satire! History, sort of! Gunplay! Handjobs! Mud baths! Silly dancing! Animal cruelty! A bewigged but otherwise nude man being pelted with pomegranates in slow motion!
Okay, maybe The Favourite isn’t for everyone—it’s a Yorgos Lanthimos film, after all. The Greek director of Dogtooth, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer invariably strives to unsettle his audience, and there’s a lot in The Favourite to make the average costume-drama aficionado decidedly uncomfortable.
First of all, it’s not really a drama. It’s a superlatively hilarious take on the Restoration-era comedy of manners, using historical figures from early 18th-century England to make some decidedly bleak points about power struggles and human nature. The fact it’s the funniest movie of the year shouldn’t jibe with its sumptuous production design and gorgeously appointed costumes, but it does.
That’s in large part due to The Favourite’s hysterical, brutal script, written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. But it’s also thanks to terrific acting by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, playing courtiers vying for the favor of fickle Queen Anne, and using all the tricks of flattery, sexuality, and—in some cases—unvarnished honesty at their disposal. Nicholas Hoult, too, is excellent as a scheming politician whose Machiavellian qualities are offset by a ludicrously oversized wig.
Queen Anne, of course, is played by actual queen Olivia Colman, who was so great in Peep Show and Broadchurch and The Night Manager and everything else she’s ever been in (a long list that will include, next year, The Crown, in which she’ll play a very different sort of queen). Colman is superhumanly good in this, playing a self-centered, not particularly bright monarch who screeches at her subjects, stuffs her face, sobs with self-pity, and needs to be wheeled around her enormous but still stuffy palace whenever her gout acts up.
But despite her monstrosity, Colman gives this character—emphasis on character, as this is a clearly exaggerated version of the real Queen Anne—some genuine heart and emotion. When she dotes on her large menagerie of rabbits, and explains how they’re surrogates for the many children she’s lost, your heart aches for her even as you’re stifling nasty giggles.
Shot at a massive English country estate using only natural light, Lanthimos and director of photography Robbie Ryan make every shot a marvel, using either sunlight streaming in through floor-to-ceiling windows or candles to illuminate the palace’s back passages and corridors. The result is remarkably different from Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, which also used natural light in an effort to evoke the lushly colored paintings of the 18th century.
Lanthimos’s vision is less Hogarth and more Lewis Carroll-esque madhouse, with stark blacks and whites and a reliance on wide-angle lenses to not only distort the characters but to position their petty, claustrophobic lives within the enormity of these decadent spaces.
This is a movie that works magnificently on every level. More than that, it distills the surreal, challenging aspects of Lanthimos’ earlier work into something more palatable but just as provocative. Sure, it may not be for everyone—its perturbing final shot, for instance, isn’t anything you’d ever see in a Merchant Ivory film—but if it’s for you, The Favourite is a fiendishly fun time.