The Favourite—After the surreal, Kafka-lite strangeness of The Lobster (2016) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), this latest from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos seems relatively straightforward. Scripted by Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis, it’s a historical drama depicting the cat-and-mouse game between two women for political and personal influence over Queen Anne (the marvelous Olivia Colman) in the early 1700s.
Still, Masterpiece Theatre this ain’t. We hear occasional updates from the War of Spanish Succession, but mostly the film is devoted to the competition between the high-powered Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and her poor relation Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) to fulfill the emotional, physical and sexual needs of the addled, unhealthy, jealous, desperately needy Queen.
Marlborough, a Whig who wants to control the Queen’s war policy—her husband is leading the troops—dares bold honesty with Anne; she’s willing to tell her if her makeup makes her look like a badger. Abigail, who just wants to advance from her status as a servant, uses seductive flattery with the Queen, and eventually becomes a pawn of the Tories against Marlborough. It’s a little like Mean Girls, except that the power structure of Europe hangs in the balance.
It’s refreshing to see a historical tale in which the ladies are the movers and shakers and the men are mostly bit players. But Lanthimos and the screenwriters are far from making a woman’s lot in that period look rosy. Before the film is ten minutes in, Abigail witnesses public self-gratification on a carriage, then gets flung face-first in the mud. Before long she gets beaten, and tricked into burning her hand with lye. When an amorous fellow tells her he’s a gentleman, she takes it for granted she’s about to be raped. Through all this and more, Stone maintains her poise and aplomb.
Rachel Weisz cuts a raffish figure as Marlborough, especially after she acquires a piratical scar on her cheek; she’s almost like a badass fantasy anti-heroine, a bit like Lena Headey in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Still, she and Colman get an undercurrent of authentic tenderness into their scenes together, like when they exchange the affectionate pet names “Mrs. Morley” and “Mrs. Freeman.”
Even though The Favourite isn’t technically surreal or fanciful, the Lanthimos weirdness still asserts itself. There are duck races and dances out of Monty Python and the pelting of a naked man with fruit, and while for all I know these may reflect actual courtly amusements from the period, they give the movie an absurdist flavor. In his earlier work, however, Lanthimos has often seemed, despite his obvious talent, chilly and off-putting, more brilliant than enjoyable. But maybe thanks to the lashing, acidic wit of Davis and McNamara’s dialogue, The Favourite is a dishy good time.
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