An old, very ill Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) struggles in opulent isolation as England wars with France. Unable to govern properly, she allows her close friend and Duchess of Marlborough, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), essentially to run the country on her behalf. Their relationship is complex and slightly twisted, but orderly. That is, until a new maid called Abigail (Emma Stone, sporting an impressive English accent) makes an impression and greatly disturbs the dynamic.
The Favourite is exactly what we’ve come to expect from director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, Killing of a Sacred Deer) – darkly comedic, slightly depraved and utterly surreal. With regularly panning wide-shots, immaculately specific sets and a sharp, jarring score, it’s fair to say he has a pretty firm grasp of what a Lanthimos film should be.
In this case his specificity is matched by the characters on screen. You sense every single word delivered by the three leads is chosen very carefully to manipulate, trick or humiliate. Especially guilty of that are the two young women vying for the Queen’s favour. Lady Sarah is a ruthless control freak, adamant of having her way and nearly always getting it. Always the personification of stoicism, her weaknesses are only exposed when jealousy and rivalry take over.
Abigail enters the fray with an innocent charm but quickly displays cunning and trickery as she rises from servant to confidant. In many ways the polar opposite to Sarah, she is young, unpredictable, wilder yet gentler. It’s a fascinating dynamic between two women of enormous will-power.
In the middle of it all is Colman’s Queen. On the surface she is pathetic, with her childlike expressions, desperate wails and demonic screams; but dig deeper and what you find is a truly tragic character. Confused, traumatised by a horrific life-story and ultimately alone, Colman conveys this maddening monarch with a real texture. What could have been cartoonish is made pitiful, scary and, at times, funny.
While their three stunning performances are certainly at the forefront, Lanthimos takes the opportunity to place them amidst ridiculous surroundings. The film is incredibly aware of its pomposity, mocking monarchy and aristocracy by highlighting the absurdity of a world completely debauched. The Queen, totally unaware of anything outside of her palace, entertains herself by racing lobsters and devouring endless amounts of cake (in one of the most disgusting scenes of 2019. It’s early, I know).
Sharp, entertaining and often shocking, The Favourite’s brilliance lies in its detachment from reality. Scenes which may otherwise have been sickening become palatable because it almost seems right in the world it inhabits. Anchored by three performances worthy of Oscar consideration, and delivered by the clean efficiency and visual splendour of Yorgos Lanthimos, it’s the perfect antidote to traditional period pieces.
Image credit: Movie DB