Yorgos Lanthimos doesn’t have much faith in humankind. In his 2009 masterwork Dogtooth, the writer / director depicted the suburban nuclear family as a vision of hell, strung together by an abusive and arbitrary framework of rules. 2016’s The Lobster took a similar view of relationships, with an added dose of outlandish comedy. Last year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer found Lanthimos pushing the nihilistic absurdity to its breaking point, and for the first time in his career, it felt like the seams were beginning to show.
One could be forgiven for thinking that after careening into pitch-blackness, Lanthimos is playing it safe as a gun-for-hire on a period-piece costume drama, and frankly, that’s partly true. The Favourite is easily the filmmaker’s most accessible work; narratively, it doesn’t stray far from its genre cohorts, despite some prickly sexual underpinnings. Fortunately, it’s a savage spoof of costume dramas and retains much of the mesmerizing weirdness that made his previous work so effective. Although it’s the first time Lanthimos has adapted someone else’s screenplay, he shows zero signs of having grown a heart. The Favourite is riotously funny, shockingly cruel and among the year’s best films.
The story circles around a triumvirate of characters who are at turns monstrous and sympathetic, but mostly just monstrous. At the center is Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), an orb of absolute power who’s all but checked out from her role due to a battle with gout and the loss of her 17 children. Taking over governing duties is Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), a Duchess who’s worked her way into being the Queen’s sole adviser and clandestine lover. There’s an ongoing war between Britain and France, and every whisper of Sarah’s into the Queen’s ear moves an army.
New to the party is Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), Sarah’s disgraced younger cousin, who was sold off by her father over a gambling debt. Abigail’s ambition might outmatch her cousin’s, however, as she rapidly ascends from faceless house servant to confidant of the Queen. As these things often go, Abigail and Sarah soon engage in increasingly vicious plays for scraps of power at each other’s expense. Imagine Mean Girls by way of The Shining and you’re on the right track.
Where Lanthimos previously preferred his characters to speak in a stiff and detached manner, here he allows the actors to gnash and spit out every venomous insult with relish. While every staple of the costume drama is present, including the spiteful exchanges, Lanthimos exaggerates nearly every aspect to the point of outright parody. Characters don’t merely trade clever barbs; they trade blows and bullets. Pay close attention to Nicholas Hoult’s smarmy politician, a character who could easily be the douchebag bro in a high-school comedy: his outfit is a tad more exaggerated each time we see him — his powdered wig larger, his makeup caked even heavier.
Those aren’t the only distinctions The Favourite brings to an over-saturated genre: Nearly every shot from beginning to end is pause-your-TV outstanding. Wide frames of elegant hallways and stunning ballrooms show off the immaculate sets, while fisheye lenses and low-angle shots create a chilly effect when studying characters. This technique works especially well for Queen Anne, whom Colman portrays as both terrifyingly inhuman and emotionally vulnerable.
Stone nonetheless walks away with The Favourite, playing against-type (and clearly savoring every second of it) as one of the year’s most delectable villains. A scene in which she stumbles upon an intimate moment between Sarah and Queen Anne is beautifully played, as she wordlessly transforms from gaping surprise to determined resolve in under a minute. That type of performance is certain to turn heads, which makes it a shame that Weisz may not get the same awards attention with her turn as the high-strung yet equally calculating Sarah.
Lanthimos has long been fascinated in conducting his own bizarre little social experiments, be it a disturbing form of speed dating or a father faced with a deadly ultimatum. The Favourite is no different, albeit with a less implausible approach. This time, we’re witnesses to two ambitious and ruthless women battling over an immovable monolith of power. Sure, their actions could eradicate an entire nation, but Lanthimos isn’t concerned with the minutiae of politics. What does that matter when we’re all doomed to destroy each other anyway?