On its surface, The Favourite should be a lot of different things. It should be a historical period piece. It should be a political thriller. It should be a satirical think piece about how absolute power corrupts absolutely, about how our politicians and upper classes don’t give a fig for the rest of us, and about the mind games it takes to climb the social hierarchy. And yes, The Favourite is all of those things. But it is also an entirely different animal in the hands of deranged, wonderful director Yorgos Lanthimos. In Lanthimos’ capable hands, The Favourite is All About Eve as directed by Peter Greenaway, with Barry Lyndon’s technology thrown in for good measure. And as it turns out, this is exactly the type of film that I want – and audiences need – in life.
In 1708, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) rules Great Britain in a troubled state. Anne suffers from a variety of illnesses, both physical (like the gout) and mental (she’s highly manic depressive). As her whims and desires change on a moment’s notice, and her passions instead lie with lobster races and playing with her pet rabbits, it becomes clear that her childhood best friend and current Favourite of the Court (essentially an advisor who can help make decisions), Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) has taken to ruling the country. The result is a continuous war with the French and unrest in Parliament (led by the pompous Robert Harley, as played by Nicholas Hoult). However, things are upended when Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) comes to the court. A former lady whose father lost her in a poker game to “an ugly German with a thin c*ck,” Abigail arrives at the palace without a penny to her name and a desire to work as a scullery maid for her cousin. However, as secrets are revealed and manipulations are executed, Abigail manages to work her way into the Queen’s inner circle, and soon an all-out brawl breaks out between the cousins to see who can remain the Queen’s Favourite.
What’s fascinating about The Favourite is how unsubtle it is. I don’t mean this as a dig against the film – while most films’ lack of subtlety would be a deterrent, Lanthimos uses it as a strength. He believes (perhaps rightly) that his view of class, politics and power are so blatantly right that only a pompous buffoon would disagree. And he demonstrates this by drawing on both 18th century history and the decadence of 21st century life to portray his aristocracy as the monsters they are. While the citizens of Great Britain starve to death and fight wars for the monarchy, the rich politicians spend their time throwing balls and racing ducks. Hell, they grow so bored by the third act that they literally strip a fat politician naked and pelt him with fruit. Why? Because they can, of course. Why else would the rich elite do anything? Perhaps one of the most scathing moments is an extended sequence of Sarah trying to help Queen Anne dress for her weekly horseback ride along the countryside. These things are considered “necessary,” as that is what the monarchy is to do, but it feels so gratuitous when you realize that this is time that the queen could be spending actually leading her country. Of course, being Queen is perhaps the farthest thing from Anne’s mind. The way the film portrays Anne is wholly fascinating – it understands and pities the exorbitant stress that Anne is under, considering her mental health issues, as well as the fact that she has lost 17 children through miscarriages and stillbirths (her pet rabbits carry the names of the children she lost). However, for as much as the film pities her for the things out of her control, it also has a very clear statement on what the world looks like when we allow a monstrous she-child access to absolute power. Honestly, it’s incredibly funny to watch – she shouts at her servants on a whim, threatens suicide whenever things don’t go her way, eats until she throws up from the sugar only to take another bite, and has herself carried around like an Egyptian goddess. One of my favorite moments involves her listening to a beautiful piece of orchestral music with Abigail, before declaring, “Moment’s gone,” and aggressively shouting at and chasing off the band. It’s a stunning testament to how difficult it is to serve a solitary leader when said leader’s desires change on a whim.
Of course, the only thing worse than a childish leader is the reality of surrounding that person with manipulative, bacchanalian monsters. The only thing this film stages more beautifully than hysterical hysterics are the backroom political machinations of a bunch of rich fops. There are more veiled threats and subtle power moves than Game of Thrones, Veep, and Downton Abbey, combined, and it all plays out less like a chess game and more like New Girl’s True American. Of course, one of the film’s most scathing critiques is the subplot surrounding the War with France. When the film starts, it is made clear that the war is, for all intents and purposes, completed. However, due to the hefty taxes that go along with continued warfare, as well as the fact that people are more patriotic when a war is going on, Sarah (whose husband is leading the British forces) and the Whigs constantly manipulate the Queen into continuing the war. The rich don’t stay rich without keeping the people in check, you see. It’s a prescient, brilliant subtext to everything else happening in the film, especially considering the Queen is actively in favor of ending it as well – not because she actually cares, of course; she just wants to remain popular amongst the people. Between the populism of Anne and the greed of her handlers, Lanthimos explores 5000 years’ worth of history (and especially the last seventy years) through the lens of one comical event in 1708. However, Lanthimos’ explorations of power don’t end there: as with every film he’s made before, he wants to drive to that very idea at the core of all power plays: sex. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” Here, that statement has never been more true. In the world of The Favourite, the women are cunning and the men are monsters. Every man in the film is either a pompous fop (like Hoult’s Robert Harley) or addicted to sex (like Joe Alwyn’s hysterical Samuel Masham). It’s no surprise that we never see the politicians actually get anything done; they’re too busy doing anything but. Masham in particular is a hilarious figure – we never see him try to do anything other than seduce Stone’s Abigail. Even when he is in Parliament and debating the war effort, he’s still stroking his walking stick in an increasingly lewd manner. Of course, the women in the film are aware of these attitudes – amongst the men and amongst each other – and they are more than willing to use these passions to their advantage. Stone in particular is ruthless in this regard. Her eyes and facial cues ring true every time a character makes a pass at her, or she hears what quickly becomes a recurring line, “I’d like to see you stripped and whipped.” Abigail knows her looks are essential, and she uses them to manipulate man and woman alike to raise her status in the court – including Anne, who enjoys the way Abigail gives in and flatters her while Sarah utilizes a blunter, crueler approach. In this way, The Favourite feels like a straight-up retelling of All About Eve, with Weisz as Bette Davis, Stone as Anne Baxter, and Anne as a cross between Davis and Holm. And what makes this decision work best is the fact that Lanthimos foregoes his normal static, stoic acting style in favor of something more bombastic and outlandish. It is lovely to see Lanthimos expressing emotion while never giving up his vision. Of course, changing one’s directorial style does come at a cost, and for Lanthimos, that cost is the signature thematic material ever-present in his work. As a director, Lanthimos has always used his silly fables to plumb the depths of the human condition – Dogtooth raised questions about authoritarianism, The Lobster raised questions about human compatibility, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer was a brilliant study in chaos theory. As entertaining as The Favourite is, it never feels like it’s reaching for anything greater than “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” and “the rich are assh*les.” Furthermore, the film loses energy in the final fifteen minutes, after one of the “favourites” defeats her opponent and the trichotomy falls apart, to the point that it almost feels like all the wind has been taken out of the film’s sails. I suppose that a weak final fifteen minutes and lesser themes are a worthwhile sacrifice if the trade-off is the best film that Lanthimos has ever made, it’s just hard not being disappointed that the film feels too different from its predecessors.
However, as stated above, this is across-the-board Lanthimos’ greatest film. There is not a weak link from the top down in terms of filmmaking, starting with the script. I do not exaggerate when I say this is one of the sharpest, funniest, greatest screenplays in at least twenty five years. It’s honestly perfect from top to bottom. The dialogue ranges from the bluntly satiric (when Abigail asks a maid why the mud smells funny, she matter-of-factly states, “They sh*t in the streets. Political commentary, they call it”) to the fancifully vulgar (Rachel Weisz at one point tells Nicholas Hoult that he “looks like a 96-year-old whore’s va-ju-ju” in a way that only Weisz could) to the just plain ridiculous (at the height of the drama, Weisz threatens, “If you do not go, I will start kicking you, and I will not stop”). Meanwhile, cinematographer Robbie Ryan creates picturesque imagery throughout, while simultaneously giving things the old Lanthimos Lens. Ryan stages every frame like an eighteenth century portrait, but then proceeds to add the “fisheye lens,” forcing everything to look wonky and making the royal court appear hideous and deformed. It’s a humorous way of indicting the monarchy as real-life monsters (and it looks gorgeous, to boot). Ryan and Lanthimos also utilize slow-motion effects in order to demonstrate primal decadence, in a move that’s clearly inspired by Greenaway, but never feels like theft or unoriginal. Oh, and did I mention that the lighting is all-natural, from sunlight to candles? Yeah, that’s impressive. Meanwhile, the costumes are all gorgeous, from Anne’s gowns to Abigail’s corsets to the men’s wigs. And personally, there are few things I’ve loved this year as much as literally every outfit that Weisz wears in this film. However, what I love most about Lanthimos’ filmmaking here is how he’s not afraid to completely ridiculous with the material. There is a dance scene where Lanthimos allows Weisz and Alwyn to grow more and more anachronistic – there’s hip hop and Vogueing in there at one point – that is honestly one of my favorite scenes of the year. Nicholas Hoult uses the old “Hey, what’s that behind you?” in order to push Emma Stone down a hill. And there is an EXTENDED sequence where Alwyn’s Masham chases after Stone’s Abigail in an attempt to f*ck her where he literally dive tackles her like the wolf in a 1940s cartoon. If all of that sounds dumb, that’s because it is. But that’s because Lanthimos is trying to make this the most insane film possible – and it works.
Across the board, this is some of the finest acting of the year. Emma Stone goes against everything we’ve come to know about her to give one of the year’s most unique performances. Her portrayal of Abigail is rich and vicious, with each look, each facial expression, and each inflection demonstrating a range we’ve never seen from her – not even in Birdman or La La Land. Meanwhile, Weisz is wonderfully manipulative as Sarah, delivering some of the best lines of her career – not to mention a sequence where she artfully hurls books at Emma Stone, which is absolutely my new aesthetic. Nicholas Hoult is hilarious as Harley, lurking in the shadows as some sort of foppish villain and uttering what may be the only truly hilarious uses of the C-word in history. And there’s something charming about the absurdist, sex-addicted performance of Joe Alwyn. However, if there’s a character I want to talk about the most, it’s Colman. Colman’s performance here can only be described as brave. She plays Queen Anne as a fifty-something child, throwing outlandish temper tantrums and constantly whining about her injuries. Watching her stumble around the palace in a manic daze is horrifying, hilarious, and mesmerizing, all at the same time. However, the reason that this performance works is that Colman consistently maintains a sadness behind her eyes, conveying a sense of loneliness in her position at the top, a position that she never wanted to begin with. Each look shows us a glimpse of self-loathing, manic depression, and a necessity to hide her true desires and personalities. She delivers each line with a verve that no other performer could ever dream of, and her final scenes in which her character is half-paralyzed with disease are truly a wonder to watch. Quite frankly, every performer in this film is utter perfection (and a special shout-out to Ben English for enduring Colman’s abuse throughout the film – it’s a master class in stoicism).
The Favourite is a film that can best be summed up with the quotation, “People are led. They do not lead.” It is a condemnation of allowing one individual full reign over a nation, due to weaknesses in human nature and our innate ability to allow outside forces influence us. Lanthimos has perfectly crafted a movie that keeps us on our toes as to who is leading who at any given time – is Sarah doing the leading? Is Abigail? Is Anne secretly leading them both? I suspect that the answer doesn’t matter to Lanthimos, and that’s ok. Watching the power change hands is the focus here, and it is truly delightful to witness. Lanthimos has crafted a magnificent film, entertaining from the top down, and it is a film I haven’t stopped thinking about since I saw it last Wednesday. Do yourself a favour and go see it as soon as possible.