The opening moment of The Favourite finds the infantile Queen Anne (played by the always spectacular Olivia Colman) in her darkened bedchambers with her closest friend and most important adviser, Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (played by the equally enthralling Rachel Weisz). The monarch beseeches the duchess to kiss one of her 17 rabbits, which we later learn are representative of all the children she’s lost over the years. Sarah refuses, crying, “Love has limits!” Quickly, the queen retorts, “It should not!”
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s seventh film spends the next two hours hilariously exploring this back and forth, this philosophical divide. What’s the limit to love of country? Of class? Of stability? Of another? Of self?
Set in early 18th century, Great Britain is in the midst of a costly war with France. Queen Anne sits on the throne, though her gout and fragile mental state prevent her from being a truly effective sovereign. Her weakness is only to Sarah’s advantage, who uses her influence over the queen to rule as de facto leader, bringing the country deeper into the war. When Sarah’s charming but poor cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), arrives at the palace looking for work, the distant relative uses her wits to rise in court ranks, eventually challenging Sarah for the favor of the queen.
The film is devoid of any of Lanthimos’s truly surreal story elements—there’s not a
lobster* or underlying Greek tragedy in sight. But that doesn’t make the film any less fun. Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script is wonderfully ridiculous, written like a “Royals Behaving Badly” version of history.
From duck races to naked pomegranate fights, pigeon shooting to the indulgent consumption of cake, the opulence and hedonistic impulses of court life are a delight to watch, especially against this unraveling of the women’s relationships to one another. There’s nothing sanitized about any of the women’s sexuality, emotion, or interactions—they are all licking, sticking, and manipulating one another in desperate jostles for power and control.
Director of photography Robbie Ryan framed every shot as if it were a painting. Filmed in natural light, the inky black of night against the yellowness of candles is like the richness of an oil painting. The dark earthy tones of the wooden banisters, the lush tapestries covering the walls, and the seemingly endless maze of the palace adds to this sense of insulation and isolation.
While there has rightfully been lots of buzz around Colman’s performance (she was just nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy while her two costars picked up nominations for Best Supporting Actress), for me, Stone really stole the show. Her performance as Abigail artfully toes the line between hateable and understandable.
Abigail’s quick thinking and sharp tongue coupled with her willingness to throw her morals to the wind in order to gain favor with the queen reminds me of the X-rated Jane Austen heroine I’d always dreamt of being. The kind of woman that would leave a man of a higher social rank absolutely “cuntstruck,” in the words of Nicholas Hoult’s contemptuous statesman Robert Harley, by not only her wits but also her ample bosom. Brava, Ms. Stone.
The Favourite is a historical period piece for people who hate historical period pieces. And it’s a rollicking, farcical, fucking good time.
*CORRECTION: Lanthimos actually does sneak in a lobster. Two, even. Tricky! My bad!