Yorgos Lanthimos has made a career out of surrealist, dark comedies such as The Lobster and Dogtooth. His latest is his most accessible and delightful. The Favourite
understands that behind even the primmest and most proper royalty, there are passions and petty behaviors. Here he gleefully satirizes the period-piece romance, think Jane Austen adaptations with a heavy mix of Veep style bite.
The film is set in the 1700s in England. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) would rather eat cake and play with her bunnies than worry about the war with France going on. Lady Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) takes the reigns as she manipulates the Queen to see her own political motivations through. Her desire to keep the war going is at odds with the lower class, represented by Lord Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) and his giant wig. Into this political arena enters Abigail (Emma Stone), Lady Sarah's cousin who is covered in mud and shit when she arrives at the palace. Abigail seeks employment and quickly becomes Lady Sarah's maid.
Abigail is wide-eyed but driven and quickly seizes an opportunity to move her class status upward. She begins to court the attention and praise of Queen Anne, first by fixing a remedy for her gout and then in more illicit ways. This threatens Lady Sarah's position and power over Queen Anne and the two soon enter into a battle of wits that pushes well beyond any sense of decency.
Lanthimos takes the costumed drama genre and doses it in acid. He is all too happy to poke fun at this time period. The Prime Minister walks a duck around after it wins a race and is declared the fastest duck in the country. A naked man is pelted with blood oranges as a means of amusement. Lady Sarah and Abigail shoot birds and almost each other. These shooting scenes show the power shift between the two women wonderfully. Debauchery is regularly on display making The Favourite a darkly funny and sometimes shocking watch.
The film regularly intercuts shots from a fish-eye lens. This lens greatly distorts the audience's viewpoint. It is another way in which Lanthimos tries to satirize the period drama. Instead of showing off the fancy, ornate interiors and decor of the palace, he uses these lenses to twist and distort things from beautiful to ugly, denying the viewer the pleasure of the scenery.
Lanthimos peppers the film with digs at the genre's formula. We get the pompous dancing scene that often happens in romances set in this time period. The kind of stiff dancing that you only ever see in these types of movies is distorted here into the hilarious. I am pretty sure the dancers vogue like Madonna and work in some breakdancing moves. The result is a riot. The Favourite has many of these one-off, detailed moments that had me belly-laughing.
At the center of the film are three standout performances. Oscar better recognize the trio of Stone, Weisz and especially Colman. Colman's Queen progressively becomes more grotesque and disabled as the film goes along and her physical performance is a must-see. Weisz is icy and calculated which plays great against Stone's surface sweetness. The screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara is full of quotable dialogue. They use words like knives and the exchanges between characters are the bloodiest bloodless exchanges of the year.
The Favourite is a devilishly good time and one of the year's best. Lanthimos expands his unique voice here into something that retains his strange style while inviting newcomers into his world. The film feels like a lost Luis Bunuel film and that is a very good thing. The ending initially baffled me a bit but time helps illuminate the wicked coda the film delivers. In the end, you can claw and scratch your way to the top but you still may end up surrounded by some damn bunnies, rubbing someone's feet.