He may have shifted from Greek to English and from unknown actors to Hollywood stars, but perverse director Yorgos Lanthimos has done nothing to change my internal adage about his work: one does not enjoy his films so much as endure them. His latest, The Favourite (2018), is yet another edgy dark comedy full of personality clashes, mental illness, and bodily fluids. It’s also a gritty, surprising costume drama that manages, in an esoteric way, to comment on the timeless disconnect between the classes.
In early sixteenth century England, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, in a riveting performance) is on the throne, disinterestedly ruling with the assistance of her conniving confidant Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Secretly, Sarah has seduced Anne and is using her charms to hold onto the soft power of serving as her proxy, which she leverages against the leaders of two opposing political parties—Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) and Sidney Godolphin (James Smith). Against this political backdrop, during which the lives of soldiers on the battlefield are bargained over by a disconnected elite (sound familiar?), enters Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), who has fallen on desperate times. Abigail seeks a mere servant’s wage on the queen’s estate. But she’s also a former lady, and ambitious. When she works her way into Anne’s good graces, she finds herself vying for privilege and power against Sarah in a rivalry that escalates into a dark confrontation.
The Favourite is oddly stylized and visually striking, like most of Lanthimos’ work, with a snarly sense of humor and a tendency to lean boldy into shock tactics. It’s also his most complete and successful work: a stark, immersive vision that highlights the tragic plight of three women vying for the only power available to them in a society engineered against them. A huge part of what makes it work is the trio of remarkable stars, especially Colman, a wonderful character actress who gets a much-deserved turn in the spotlight here. But Weisz and Stone are also great, bringing the escalating rivalry to nasty life. As usual, Lanthimos lures the viewer in with quirky humor and vivid worldbuilding, then pulls the rug out to deliver hard-hitting messages. Come for the odd, stay for the bleak commentary. A brilliantly performed and memorable film.