I’ve been no fan of Yorgos Lanthimos. His English-language claim to fame The Lobster, sold as cheeky comedy, was neither funny nor thought-provoking regarding relationships in the 21st century, a short film elongated for indulgence. His follow-up Killing of a Sacred Deer, sold as disturbing horror in the vein of Kubrick or Von Trier, was neither scary nor interesting as a Greek myth writ large, an exercise in pretension. All the while many critics were fawning over the auteur, showering him with hosannas for biting wit and metaphor-as-social commentary, while leaving me dumbfounded and feeling dumb. Did I not get it? Did I miss something, an all-important epiphany? Was I not appreciating a peculiar brand of bitter gin in cinematic form? As it turns out, my instincts were correct: Yorgos Lanthimos is a great director and a bad writer. With The Favourite, his first time working with a writer beyond himself and fellow Greek Efthymus Filippou, well…he finally lives up to the hype and then some.
If you’re reading this you know the premise already, that of two women (Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz) vying for the affections and affectations of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) in the early 18th century. Relegated to the margins of history, what you don’t know is such envy and treachery was so real. While absurd, this is no absurdist rendering of true people, these are real events surrounding the one, true Queen Anne. Weisz is her adviser Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough and secret lover to the throne. Stone is Abigail Hill, former lady and cousin of Sarah, and whose corner of the family has fallen on hard times. She comes for the royal court looking for work, and for scheming opportunity. Churchill side-eyes her cousin, but allows her the role of maid in the castle. From there until a final ten-minute rigor of misery it’s mostly fun and games for the audience, with Hill and Churchill maneuvering and manipulating an ill, frail, injured Queen into favoring them and flouting the other, or into raising or lowering taxes to pay for England’s ongoing war with the French. Earl of Oxford and loyal opposition member Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) is for the cause of peace and curtailing further taxing of his fellow landowners, a cause of menial but convenient ends for Abigail. She will do and use anything and most anyone within her means to rise in the aristocracy, including wedding a dashing young fellow of the court (Joe Alwyn) to make said rise official. Jealous to a fault, Sarah has done it all already, using cunning and cunnilingus to maintain influence and curry favor for years. And now she has competition with no real time for it as she runs the country in her insecure leader’s stead. Weisz is reliably good at clever, and as the scheming maid cum lady, Stone is captivating, navigating the conniving nature of her character with such warm finesse that Abigail is the more endearing of the two rivals. Second only to La La Land‘s tour de force, her performance is one of her best, elevating The Favourite beyond the fleeting joy of biting wit.
Oh, what biting wit though, what silver tongues and golden chalices. Working from a brilliant script by newcomers Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis, Yorgos rises to the occasion, forgoing the stolid craft of his previous efforts for something just as weird, wicked, and patient, but all the more impressive. Using symmetry, floating dollies, and 18th century art, his every frame is a brief work of art itself, a world of intrigue to learn of and move in, much like chess players Hill and Churchill. They are lone pieces on a chess board fighting for the same queen, one for love and influence, the other for love of status, and their world is one to regard with delight and an oddly enjoyable form of disgust. There are whore houses and mud tubs, piles of food and miles of English wood, a game of dead pigeons and a bedchamber of rabbits. There are candlelit dinners and peculiar dances, stiff upper lips and stiffer cocks and “slippery cunts.” Indeed, these decadent affairs are ripe with verbal foreplay, bare-naked bodies, and herbal cream to be lathered on the Queen’s lame body, with talk of stripping and whipping and all manner of barely repressed sexuality under the guise of courtship. Perhaps the most enjoyable affair is Abigail’s flirting and flouting of Alwyn’s Samuel Masham, a tongue-in-cheek tug-of-war between good-looking people wrestling for the upper hand. Or more like Abigail forcing him to wrestle for her hand. On the heels of Boy Erased, Alwyn’s inauspicious debut in Billy Lynn is suddenly buoyed now by a stirring future, his comedic timing and commitment the clear mark of a prolific character actor if not movie star. Nicholas Hoult, for his part, has grown leaps and bounds since leaping as Hank McCoy in X-men or his leering of A Single Man. He’s a natural as an effiminate noble with a taste for politics and a distaste for Sarah, currying a majority of humor with stinging aplomb. All would fall apart were it not for Colman as Queen Anne. She’s the glue, and she imbues the inscrutable Queen with sympathy in the face of so many unlikable traits, and for that she deserves a Best Actress nomination.
Instead of pulling focus to his own meandering, his own pretentious detours, such are his previous films, Yorgos allows a terrific ensemble to mill about grand interiors and spout delicious zingers in old-world vernacular. He has other designs too, such as timely commentary on the politics of war and the spoils of the rich and powerful, their shallow distractions from the world around them. In a house of artful images and comical relationships, these detours are no distractions, however, they are necessary layers for historical context and dutiful subtext. Subtext is a fickle thing as the fun and games end, when Anne and Abigail suffer an epiphany that leaves us neither shaken nor stirred. In these moments, the final ten minutes, Yorgos indulges in himself, choosing opacity over tenacity in tackling the end result of these manipulations. His patented emotional distance in tact, The Favourite is not the best film of the year, but it’s without a doubt the best film of the auteur’s career thus far.