“I like it when she puts her tongue inside of me.” No, that’s not a line from an adult film. Okay maybe it is — but it is also from The Favourite, a deliciously scabrous journey into the royal (and sexual) affairs of Queen Anne of Great Britain. This isn’t a polite and charming historical drama for your mom; that is unless, your mom’s the type who can get down with some naughty dark humor.
The latest from Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos is his first based on a screenplay he didn’t write. (The script is by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara.) The Favourite isn’t as twisted or demented as Lanthimos’ previous work (The Lobster, Dogtooth, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), and is easily his most accessible film yet. But make no mistake, The Favourite is as filthy and deceptively cunning as Emma Stone‘s mud and s—t stained Abigail when she first arrives at the Queen’s royal palace.
“This mud stinks.” That’s one of Abigail’s first remarks after she’s shoved out of a carriage by a character credited as “The Wanking Man” (self-explanatory) as he lunges to grab her behind, as well as the title of the film’s first chapter. Broken up into eight segments, each named after snippets of dialogue – one is “I Dreamt I Stabbed You In the Eye” – the film throws us into the thick of the power play between three women.
Olivia Colman’s batty Anne is the Queen, and though she wears the crown, it’s clear from the start that her closest friend and secret lover Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), is the one pulling the political strings. While the gouty Anne wails in pain on the floor or giddily prepares to race lobsters in her bedroom, Sarah is busy meeting with party members and swiftly deciding the fate of England’s war with France. Then enters Stone’s Abigail, Sarah’s cousin who’s anxious to return to her noble roots. She begins working as a chambermaid, but quickly wedges herself between the Queen and her right-hand woman.
“Favor is a breeze that shifts direction all the time. Then in an instant you’re back sleeping with a bunch of scabrous whores.” Those are the words of wisdom from Nicholas Hoult’s Robert Harley – one of the many standouts in movie overflowing with fantastic performances – a scheming punk intent on using Abigail to sway the court in his political party’s direction. That breeze of favoritism shifts numerous times as Anne flip-flops between Abigail and Sarah as her preferred companion, whether it be to pet her 17 rabbits – stand-ins for her deceased/unborn children – massage her aching legs, or as in one instance, a massage that turns into sex. So begins a loopy and wickedly funny love triangle full of manipulations, self-induced bloody noses (that Lanthimos sure love those!), a duck on a leash, anachronistic dance moves, and nude food fights.
Lanthimos creates an uncomfortably distorted vision of this royal world, one characterized by ominous candlelight and shadowy passageways full of secrets. Robbie Ryan, Andrea Arnold’s regular cinematographer, shot the film using mostly natural light, dizzying whip-pans, and fish-eye lenses – the latter a questionable choice I found more ostentatious and distracting than necessary. The visuals, paired with Sandy Powell’s extravagant costumes and Fiona Crombie’s decadent production design, it all adds up to a beautifully elegant and chaotic visual experience.
When it comes to the performances, there’s so much to enjoy in each of the leads its tough to pick a, well, favorite. Stone has perhaps the most interesting trajectory, playing a sweet do-gooder on the surface with razor-sharp talons ready to pounce to get what she wants. Weisz is pitch-perfect as Sarah, an intimidating, confident force in the court who turns tender when sneaking away to exchange passionate kisses with the Queen; as sly as Sarah is, you never doubt that her love for Anne is genuine. And then there’s Colman, who if hard-pressed to choose, I’d say is the real MVP. It’s an outstanding performance for how delicately Colman weaves a portrait of a woman that’s hilarious one moment and heartbreaking the next. As funny as it is to watch her shout at a young royal guard for no reason and shove cake into her mouth until she’s sick, there’s a deep well of tragedy residing within her Queen that becomes increasingly haunting up to the film’s final shot.
What’s most thrilling about The Favourite is that it depicts three women wielding power – over nations, over rooms of shouting men, and notably, over their own bodies – in an 18th century setting. There are men all over the palace trying to get their way, from Joe Alwyn’s Masham lusting after Abigail to James Smith’s Lord Godolphin lobbying for a tax hike. The women remain in control at every step, even when the men have the impression they’re holding the reins. Even better, Davis and McNamara don’t paint any of their lead female characters as inherently malicious. Sure, Sarah and Abigail do some pretty nasty things, but you can still empathize with them as women fending for themselves.
There’s a strong whiff of Lanthimosian absurdity all over The Favourite. There are some dark elements to the narrative, though this one won’t leave you totally traumatized like his past work – and thankfully no dogs, cats, or children are subjected to brutal deaths this time. Yet I found myself wanting more from the material and craving the usual psychological gut-punch that comes with a Lanthimos film; the layered storytelling of The Lobster and Dogtooth lingered with me for weeks, months even after seeing them. That said, The Favourite may be an ideal entry point for new audiences just discovering this eccentric director.
In all honesty though, this is less Lanthimos’ film than it is Colman, Stone, and Weisz’s. The Favourite is mostly an excuse to watch these three attempt to one-up each other. Maybe it’s just the general awful state of things in 2018, but a movie where women hold all the power, and get to revel in some debauchery while pulling the strings, feels like a real treat.