Power is abrasively abused and the human condition is lavishly lambasted in Yorgos Lanthimos’ cruelly comic costume drama The Favourite, which witnesses Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) holding court in 18th century England as others try desperately to climb the royal ladder. Lanthimos has a history of satirizing one’s desire for connection and control and now he’s applying that approach to, well, history. The result is a raucous portrait of women behaving badly, a fun and frisky farce that’s quite flavourful, even if ultimately a bit flat on the delivery.
When penniless Abigail (Emma Stone) goes looking for work at the palace in the wake of her father trashing the family name, she finds herself on the bottom rung, looking up at her cousin Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), the Queen’s confidante and adviser. Abigail gets a job as a scullery maid and finds that even her equally bottom-dwelling coworkers are jerks eager to exert any scrap of power they can possible muster.
Meanwhile, the Queen is an emotional wreck that blusters and blabbers her way through daily activities with Sarah practically perched on her shoulder. The Duchess of Marlborough often pushes the Queen around in a wheelchair and casually influences the monarch’s decisions regarding an unpopular war with France.
Determined to improve her rotten lot in life, Abigail ingratiates herself to Anne, edging in on Sarah’s territory and learning what makes the often-exasperated leader tick when she discovers a secret affair between Duchess and Queen. This begins an all-out social war between two women, one with everything to gain and the other with everything to lose.
The comedic core of The Favourite is driven by the main players in this dirty game, since all three actresses dig deep into their juicy roles, and keep the conflict roiling with feminine fury. Each of Colman, Weisz, and Stone make a case for being the standout star and each has traits that are memorably unique to their character: Colman’s manic outbursts are met with Weisz’s calculated coldness, which in turn finds itself up against Stone’s wily whimsy.
They make a great trio and, recognizing this, Lanthimos builds the entire movie around them. There are some male roles as well, such as a conniving member of parliament (Nicholas Hoult) who is a political thorn in Sarah’s side and a baron (Joe Alwyn) who has eyes for Abigail, but they are significantly less interesting than the women, and are mainly relegated to being pawns in the plot.
Then again, in many ways, everyone’s a pawn here. Lanthimos doesn’t expect us to care about any of these characters, since they’re all so despicably selfish, and he moves them like marionettes through a story that is designed to make us cackle at their collective folly. Previous Lanthimos pictures such as The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer have been similarly constructed as thematic labyrinths through which the characters are shuffled like blind mice. The difference between those and The Favourite is that the latter’s themes are not particularly labyrinthine.
This is a witty riff on the familiar “power corrupts” maxim, a saucy look at the sort of soul-blackening sacrifices that must be made to ensure success over your competitor when authority and influence appear to be on the line. Lanthimos loves to share his dark view of humanity and he certainly etches his portraits in charcoal here, but there remains the nagging feeling that The Favourite makes its point early on and then simply repeats it with scarce surprises along the way.
Lanthimos’ previous dalliances with Hollywood stars have led to movies that take the viewer down unexpected paths, where the director finds newly eerie dimensions to add complexity to his themes, but The Favourite is just the same joke with an elongated punchline. By the time the ending arrives, the message seems more static than ever and the humour has dried up.
More than anything, the movie’s metaphors feel too obvious and literal, taking potshots at puppet political leaders and generally exposing the ridiculous extremes of unchecked wealth and power, which is a shame considering symbolic subtext has previously been the key to unlocking the greatest treasures of a Lanthimos picture.
While we’re on a critical track, it’s also necessary to mention the photography by Robbie Ryan (with significant input from Lanthimos, apparently), in which fish-eye lenses are regularly employed for wide, room-spanning shots. It’s an incredibly awkward and distracting aesthetic decision in a movie that otherwise plays the period aspect of the picture quite straight.
It’s equally important to note that the movie is shot entirely with natural light, which makes candlelit rooms and torch-lined pathways the settings for some exquisitely beautiful imagery. The Favourite certainly has a distinctive look, which means Lanthimos has clearly achieved his goal, but those fish-eye shots remain an exaggerated eyesore.
Much of The Favourite seems locked into this tug-of-war between its originality and the trappings of the genre it refuses to ignore. It’s far less stuffy and slightly more invested in absurdity than any average royal costume drama, but it still feels like Lanthimos is holding back at every turn. He never really loosens the reins enough for anything stranger and sillier than a duck race to happen and, in the grand scheme of things, a duck race is pretty tame.
Colman, Weisz, and Stone remain the difference-makers then. Their performances encourage such intriguing anarchy that the movie works even in its leashed form. They provide the fun and ferocity, elevating The Favourite to a more memorable place than many previous monarchy-themed movies. Lanthimos can do better than this, but at least he has his trio of leading ladies who are more than willing to steal the show.