Somewhere deep in its twisted DNA, beneath the violence and cynicism and pitch-black humor, Yorgos Lanthimos’ film, “The Favourite,” is a rags-to-riches story in the vein of Cinderella and Cardi B. In the early 1700s, the down-on-her-luck Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) begins work at the palace of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) after she gambles away the family money. Abigail quickly ingratiates herself with her cousin Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough and the Queen’s court favourite. Sarah handles most of the political affairs Queen Anne is responsible for, and their relationship is both intimate and volatile. As Abigail uses Sarah to gains favor from the Queen, she is able to build her own status and soon threatens Sarah’s stronghold on Queen Anne’s tempestuous affections.
A summary of the premise does not convey the many delightful twists that the narrative takes, nor the peculiar idiosyncrasies that both define and elevate the film. On the surface, “The Favourite” looks like a traditional historical drama, thanks to the ornate and impeccably crafted costumes from Sandy Powell and the production design by Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton. It does not take long, however, for audiences to realize that “The Favourite” is hardly a staid period piece. The plot, which extrapolates an odd tidbit of British history into a fully formed character study, is not interested in faithful historical recreation or political concerns. The screenplay intentionally uses jarring historical anachronisms, including ample use of the word “c–t”. There are ducks, pineapples and rape jokes (Oh my!). Lanthimos’ off-kilter style, which should at least win the Academy Award for “Most Gratuitous Use of the Fisheye Lens,” brings an impressive amount of visual panache for a film mostly confined to a single palace, a setting that feels both claustrophobic and otherworldly.
The excellent trio of actresses in “The Favourite” singlehandedly proves that the Academy Awards needs to hand out a Best Ensemble trophy. Though Colman is competing in Lead Actress and Stone and Weisz are in Supporting, the three are best appreciated as a collaborative unit, a well-oiled machine of crackling chemistry and sexual tension. Colman is a tornado of neediness, selfishness and raw pain, upending any expectations of royal authority. Weisz brings sexiness and restraint to a part that demands real weight — though Anne is the actual Queen, Sarah is the palace’s actual center of gravity. And Stone utilizes her dry sarcasm and her past skills as an ingénue to a genuinely unsettling effect. All three are in a constant dance trading dominance and submission, performance and authenticity, power and vulnerability. All the while, the cast ably anchors the film’s travails through farce, psychosexual thriller and melodrama, both understanding and elevating the material. I wish all three could give acceptance speeches Sunday night.
“The Favourite” is much more interested in sex than actual politics, and the narrative establishes a volatile, kinky sort of love triangle between the three women. The film has won a devoted queer audience, despite of (or maybe because of) the fact that the relationships in “The Favourite” are hardly warm and fuzzy. Deborah Davis and Tony McMamara’s whip-smart screenplay allows these female characters to be complex and fully formed — it is a rare treat to see three dynamic female leads giving little regard to appearing likable or offering empowerment. In an interview about the characters in “The Favourite,” Weisz said, “They’re kind, cruel, sadistic, needy, vulnerable, Machiavellian, ridiculous and absurd. They have many, many things going on, which is what makes us human.” None of the characters are exactly sympathetic, but their motivations are crisp and compelling. Much of the fun in “The Favourite” is tracking the ups-and-downs of the characters’ machinations and enjoying the delicious shifts in power dynamics. The experience of this film is more like watching professional wrestling or “The Real Housewives” than say, “Mary, Queen of Scots.”
“The Favourite” exists on its own terms, allowing for the witty screenplay and thrilling performances to speak for itself. “The Favourite” does not have the explicit social commentary of “BlacKkKlansman” or “Black Panther,” nor is it a crowd pleaser like “A Star is Born” or “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “The Favourite” is successful because of, not in spite of, these differences — it sticks to its own uncompromising vision, avoiding even a whiff of didacticism. The cruelty and absurdity of “The Favourite” hold a funhouse mirror to the cruelty and absurdity of privilege and power and femininity and sex, but Lanthimos never engages in political argument or winks at our unstable present. As the characters’ influence widens, his interest only grows more insular. “The Favourite” is tied to the past, but it lives in a world all of its own.