It takes exceptional talent to balance on the knife edge of very good, very funny, very upsetting absurdism. Director Yorgos Lanthimos brought a dark, humorous, strange parable with The Lobster (2015). The Favourite takes the game to the next level: it’s cunning, beautiful, precise, and brilliantly hilarious.
Olivia Colman reigns the screen as the aging and ailing Queen Anne, embroiled in war, unpopularity, gout, and lavish period outfits. The queen is also marked by a beautifully portrayed childishness. With surprisingly few fictional embellishments, writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara paint the character of Anne crushed at the tail end of a life of tragedy and searching for comfort. A few bright points in her surreally ostentatious palace life are her life-long relationship with her dear friend and lover Sarah, Lady Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), whose political power soars with her proximity to the queen even as Sarah shields and leads a capitulating Anne blindly along with Sarah’s own agenda.
A fresh upheaval arrives in the form of a mud-drenched and seemingly terminally ill-fated Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah’s down-on-her-luck and stunningly pretty younger cousin. With breakneck speed and ruthless playacting, Abigail toys with Anne’s malleable threads of affection. The threads of power are wound so tightly they might snap at any moment. Nicholas Hoult delivers a fabulous performance as Sarah’s foppish political rival, Harley, and the court shines with sterling performances and gorgeous costume design.
From the swiveling camera to the abrupt transitions to intense fisheye lenses, the movie disorients visually, narratively, and emotionally, throwing expectations at exactly the right angle to bleed the plot forward to its next deception or standoff.
Absurdity like The Favourite’s can too often come off cheap or hokey or painfully artsy, with that trying-too-hard edge that shoves viewers out rather than drawing them in. The Favourite, though, does weird right. The mood and tension of the movie, along with its finely crafted shots and its masterful acting, delivers a bullseye of humor and discomfort.
I was thrilled to see this movie soaring out of the gate with such style—and without a male lead. The men of the movie are incidental accessories to the power of the women, although the technicality of the women’s social position in the time period is clearly established as well. Abigail’s machinations must balance her affair with the queen and her aspirations for security through marriage. Sarah’s position at court technically derives from her war-hero husband.
In period pieces, such disenfranchisement opens the door to an atmosphere of sexual violence and danger that all-too-easily diminishes female characters (or, as with notorious examples like Game of Thrones, portrays women as necessarily undergoing sexual trauma as a lazy and perverse form of character development). The Favourite knows the women-in-period-dramas repertoire that it’s joining and, as with everything else in this movie, goes to town tearing the tropes to bits.
A sequence of scenes in the forest is, I think, one of the most pointed examples of this topsy-turvy treatment of misogynistic tropes. Abigail, out gathering herbs in a sunlit meadow, is spied by a dashing young man on horseback. Abigail stands and leaves hastily—with the clear implication of the all-too-familiar assault scene that she’s narrowly avoided. Over the course of the movie, though, Abigail strategically seduces the horseman—a nobleman who is going to secure her position as a lady at court through marriage—until she lures him out into that same woodland meadow, with the unspoken understanding of a tryst. As she pretends to run away, giggling and cheerful, she coquettishly dips aside when he lunges at her, pushes him away, moves to kiss him and then knees him in the groin, and eventually leaves him beaten, gasping, and unfulfilled in the mess of leaves on the forest floor as she walks brightly away. The inverted scene of assault and power is undeniably funny, but it also raises the question: why are we laughing at this woman’s power?
Women’s power has devastating consequences in the movie: it throws lives out of whack and changes the course of nations and wars, while the frivolous atmosphere of court couches that power in lobster races and tea parties. Somehow that portrayal is extremely satisfying. The assurance and power of Sarah’s character, the craft and subtlety of Abigail’s, and the extraordinary influence of Anne is treated with extreme seriousness, despite the song and dance around the characters. The gravity of these women is intense, complex, and so beautifully rendered, The Favourite demands admiration.