The Favourite: Finding Your Best Qualities, by Rita Cannon
The films of Yorgos Lanthimos can be a bit of an acquired taste. He has a very specific style that blends existential horror, pitch-black comedy and stark visuals into a weird, sour soup that’s uniquely his own. (If we’re sticking with the soup metaphor, then it would absolutely be a cold soup. Maybe something borscht-adjacent?) His newest film The Favourite represents a new twist on that style, if not quite a departure from it. It’s as bleak and nasty as Lanthimos’ previous work, but it’s also infused with more recognizable humanity than I’ve seen from him before — which makes the funny stuff funnier, and the icky stuff infinitely ickier.
The story, apparently very loosely based on real events, concerns the troubled reign of Queen Anne of England (Olivia Colman), who is leading her nation in a war against France despite being hobbled by gout and struggling with what modern viewers might label as pretty severe depression. Anne is advised in all matters by her childhood friend and “first lady of the bedchamber” Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who is basically running the country while the queen is out to lunch. This arrangement is threatened when Abigail (Emma Stone), a cousin of Sarah’s who has been reduced to working as a scullery maid by her once-wealthy father’s gambling habit, arrives at the royal residence asking for a job. Sarah makes Abigail a lady-in-waiting to the queen, which proves disastrous when Abigail realizes her own gift for manipulating Anne.
The Favourite is Lanthimos’ first English-language film that he didn’t write; instead the screenplay comes from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. In last year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer and 2015’s The Lobster, the characters spoke in a strange, stilted way, imported from his Greek films, but in any case fit so well with his chilly visual style and high-concept storytelling that it helped his ideas come across instead of hindering them. The Favourite’s dialogue is heightened, but it feels organic and like the speech of actual humans, rather than robots or aliens dong their level best to imitate humans.
The real joy of watching The Favourite is getting to see a great trio of actresses sink their teeth into these complicated, often sympathetic but never exactly likable characters. Lanthimos pinpoints his cast’s essential qualities — Weisz’s poise and “English rose” gentility, Stone’s irreverent humor and spunk — and mines them for their darker, more malignant undercurrents. Olivia Colman especially shines as Anne, who initially registers as the pathetic patsy in Sarah and Abigail’s dueling con games, but starts to show her true autocratic colors as the plot ticks along. Queen Anne is a basket case and a bully who’s as likely to scream at her staff for no reason as she is to break down in tears if someone criticizes her, but she also has a debilitating need to be loved that’s as plainly visible as the lesions on her gout-ridden legs. She’s a grotesque, but somehow an achingly humane one.
If there’s one criticism I could lob at Lanthimos, it’s that he has a tendency to lay out a smorgasbord of striking images and captivating ideas, then peace out without providing what the more conventional among us might call a “satisfying ending.” (My personal analogue of Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown is when I watch a Lanthimos film and go, “Oh my God, that’s not the end of the movie, is it?!” And it always is.) Sometimes being left in the lurch to sit and stew with the characters and themes he’s given us feels like the right choice, even the only choice. The Favourite’s ending is even more oblique than usual, and I found myself wishing he’d ended on a more definitive emotion or image. But when a filmmaker is as much a virtuoso of discomfort as Lanthimos, even leaving the theater a little confused doesn’t feel half bad.