The early 18th century European courts—with their elaborate wigs and rouged lips and crinoline petticoats—have always been ripe fodder for satire. Because, let’s face it, all that puffery can’t hide the baseness of human nature, especially when power is at stake.
It’s only natural that Yorgos Lanthimos, the absurdist Greek director of such films as The Lobster and Dogtooth, would be drawn to this sort of ostentatiousness and hypocrisy. He loves cloistered worlds, and even more importantly, he loves pointing out just how delectably awful people can be.
The dark comedy The Favourite, which Lanthimos directed from a razor-sharp script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, tells the true (if highly embellished) story of Queen Anne, who ruled Great Britain from 1702 to 1707, and the two ladies in waiting who vied for her loyalty and affection.
The acting here is nothing short of sublime, undoubtedly the best ensemble work of the year. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne as a tragic and ridiculous figure—gluttonous, needy, not that bright, but touchingly childlike in her desire for approval and affection. At first, her “favourite” is Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who wields enormous power (she handles the court’s finances, devises military strategy, and visits with the heads of state) while also answering to the queen’s every demand, which sometimes include sexual favors. It’s possible to watch The Favourite and come to the conclusion that Lady Sarah is nothing but a wily opportunist, that her devotion to Queen Anne is simply transactional. However, I think that Lady Sarah is actually fond of the old bat—although whether she has any actual lust for her is another story. What’s more, she’s good for her, keeping her happy, telling her when she’s being ridiculous (“You look like a badger,” she tells her at one point, when the queen’s makeup is less than on point), and tending to her many ailments (among other things, the queen has terrible gout).
The two women are thick as thieves, so it’s just a matter of time that an agitator will disrupt their blissful harmony. She comes in the form of Abigail (Emma Stone), who is Lady Sarah’s cousin, once a lady herself, but now destitute and looking for work. Out of a sense of familial obligation, or perhaps noblesse oblige, Lady Sarah gives Abigail a job in the maid’s quarters, which Abigail is both grateful for and eager to rise above. Noticing the special relationship her cousin has with the queen, she endeavors to curry her own favor with the monarch. It’s not that hard to do if you’re pretty and you’ve been paying attention: a little flattery, a little flirtation, and a willingness to cater to all of the queen’s enormous appetites. But unlike Lady Sarah, Abigail will never keep it real with Queen Anne, calling her beautiful and desirable and pretending to dote on the menagerie of pet rabbits that roam her queenly chambers.
Just as the Queen’s affections shift from Lady Sarah to Abigail, our affections shift, too. At first, the sweet Abigail is the clear protagonist—and we see how jealously Lady Sarah responds to her. But whether Abigail changes or has always has the potential for deviousness—“As it turns out, I’m capable of much unpleasantness,” she says at one point—we soon find that Abigail is no cowering naïf. What ensues is a claws-out power struggle, with nothing less than the fate of England at stake.
Lest there be any doubt, the men in the queen’s court are ridiculous, too, from the handsome and besotted Sir Masham (Joe Alwyn), whom Abigail plays like a fiddle, to the vain and scheming Lord Harley (Nicolas Hoult), the most puffed up of them all, who isn’t above a little physical violence if it suits his needs.
The film is directed with gobs of wit and style by Lanthimos (although I confess his repeated use of a fisheye lens is a bit distracting) and the costumes and sets are jaw-dropping. In the end though, this is a three-woman show—and it’s nothing short of a privilege to watch them work.