In the films of Yorgos Lanthimos, sex, love, friendship and familial duty all exist only in their relation to the power they give people over each other. So while “The Favourite” stands apart from his best-known films (“The Lobster,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” “Dogtooth”) by being a period piece, as well as his major feature that he did not write or co-write, it very much fits the intimate jockeying and gamesmanship on display in his earlier work.
Written by first-timer Deborah Davis and Aussie TV writer Tony McNamara, “The Favourite” plays like “All About Eve” as filtered through “The Draughtman’s Contract,” where women in bustles and corsets hopelessly outmaneuver men in wigs and breeches, and where everyone from the servants to the queen herself is playing the game and manipulating others to get what they want.
The queen in question is Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), ensconced in the estate of her lifelong friend Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Sarah has the queen’s ear — among other vital organs — and works with prime mister Godolphin (James Smith, “In the Loop”) to convince the queen to raise the taxes on the landowners in the country to fund the country’s war against the French, much to the consternation of parliamentarian Harley (Nicholas Hoult).
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Into this den of intrigue comes Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), an aristocrat fallen on hard times; her father lost her in a card game when she was 15, before eventually setting the family home (and himself) on fire over whist debts. Abigail arrives literally flecked with dung after falling out of her carriage — the first of the film’s many chapters is entitled “This Mud Stinks” — but the seemingly sweet and kind Abigail wastes no time making herself indispensable, first to Sarah and then to Anne, in the hopes of raising her station.
Can Abigail outflank Sarah’s long history with Anne? Will the ambitious and duplicitous Harley fatally underestimate Abigail? Will this war of wills leave the battlefield with many losers but no winners? Part of what makes “The Favourite” such nasty fun is that it’s never clear who’s going to come out on top.
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Watching these three fiercely intelligent women, played by a trio of powerhouse actresses, is endlessly fascinating, as the goalposts constantly shift and their true selves become more apparent. While Abigail goes from wide-eyed poor relation to brilliant schemer, we simultaneously get to know Anne, as the script (and Colman) slowly reveal her layers of vulnerability beneath her wildly petulant exterior.
Colman may steal the show, but Weisz and Stone are hardly bystanders. Their characters live in a world of excess — where lords bet on duck races and, for unexplained reasons, delight in pelting a naked man with tomatoes — but these performances are spare and strict, with hidden meanings camouflaged by a cocked brow, a side glance or a meaningful stare. Their weaponized dryness plays perfectly against Colman’s royal hysteria, and her all-too-human frailty.
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And while “The Favourite” is certainly an acting showcase, Lanthimos brings the skewed vision that makes his films simultaneously enthralling and off-putting. The score (which is uncredited, for whatever reason) veers between grandiosity and minimalism but it either draws us in or keeps us at a distance as need be. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan (“The Meyerowitz Stories”) boldly but efficaciously uses swish pans, fish-eye lenses and long tracking shots to accentuate the ridiculously large rooms and corridors enjoyed by the aristocracy. The way Ryan shoots scenes like Weisz and Joe Allwyn’s absurdist gavotte on a checkerboard floor calls to mind the great Sacha Vierny’s work on Peter Greenaway’s films, particularly “The Baby of Mâcon.”
Filmgoers of the “But who do I root for?” school may find themselves adrift in all this psychological warfare, but the sight of Colman, Stone and Weisz carving out their own agency amidst a male-dominated culture creates the kind of wincing pleasure that make Lanthimos’ films such spiky delights.