Director Yorgos Lanthimos does like his moody comedies, but whereas his previous works such as 2015's The Lobster leaned heavily into magical realism, he stays grounded with The Favourite for a darkly funny and captivating period piece the likes of which we've never really seen.
It's 1700-something, and an aging Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) reigns over England and war with France (Queen Anne's War, to be precise)—but the country land owners who fund the dustup are emptying their coffers at a pace too quick for their own taste. Enter Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz, who reunites with Lanthimos for the second time), the queen's close confidant, sometimes lover and the true power behind the throne. Sarah rides roughshod over Anne almost always, navigating the temper tantrums and sexual tugs-of-war between moments of brief lucidity, medical issues and the rising tide of a dissatisfied citizenry.
While the queen whiles away the hours lonely, wandering the halls, eating her way to sickness or tending to the rabbits she's raised to replace her 17 children who died, Sarah exercises power and bends the country to her will. But when her cousin Abigail (Emma Stone)—once a lady but since fallen from grace—arrives looking for work, a battle for the queen's ear (and thus, absolute power) unfolds like a gloriously slow-burning train wreck.
Weisz is phenomenal as the too-proud Sarah and often does more with body language or a simple expression than should be possible. Colman shines as well, particularly in scenes with Weisz, and there's undeniable chemistry between them. Never once do we comfortably understand their relationship, though there does seem to have been a foundation of sincere love laid at one point, even if it's mutated into a sort of puppet regime. Stone impresses, too, and not just with a capable British accent, but in the smug way she comes into her own. At first, we see her as a wounded animal intent on survival and little else, but with writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara's clever script, she evolves into a bit of an evil monstrosity. Our allegiances shift several times over, and it's satisfying to watch men who believe themselves powerful reveal their pettiness, juvenile sexual motivations and ultimate impotence in the face of strong women leaders. Don't get us wrong, no one woman particularly uses their strength for good; it's lust and power they're feeding throughout The Favourite.
These struggles are well-illustrated through some of the most gorgeous cinematography we've seen this year. The closing moments of practically every shot read almost like Renaissance paintings, and Lanthimos reliably lends a few extra moments toward the end of many scenes for their goings-on to land. They hit hard and drive the pacing forward—no easy job for a film set in the 1700s and full of fanciful clothes, ridiculous wigs and stuffy bedchambers belonging to nobles.
And even if we don't quite know whom to root for as the film winds down, we do rather enjoy ambiguity so artfully displayed. They snuck this one in right under the awards-season wire and already have a number of Golden Globes nominations for acting and writing, and we won't be surprised if The Favourite takes home a couple statues—but even if they don't, it doesn't make it any less fun watching the would-be powerful stoop so low.
+Quite funny; performances from principal cast
-Drags on a tad too long
Directed by Lanthimos
With Weisz, Stone and Colman
Center for Contemporary Arts, R, 119 min.