Good or bad, period costume dramas about English aristocracy tend to be stuffy affairs, primed on majesty and pomp. But with a director like Yorgos Lanthimos at the helm, this tale of 18th century court intrigue twists into something wickedly fun, outrageously loose, and bizarrely delightful. While not quite as profoundly weird as The Lobster or The Killing of a Sacred Deer – The Favourite revels in keeping you on your toes with it’s idiosyncratic revisionism.
Truth be told, the palatial customs of British royalty are already strange enough, but Lanthimos’ sly anachronistic touches veer the whole spectacle into wonderful absurdism. Take for instance, a formal ball morphing from a Jane Austen-esque regency dance, into what can only be described as a Soul Train routine. This distorted flourish is further accentuated by Lanthimos’ use of a fisheye lens to capture the Machiavellian power plays underneath the corsets and curtseys.
Pettiness and petulance take center stage in this devilishly fun and farcical satire, revolving around a triumvirate of irresistible performances from Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, and Emma Stone as Abigail Masham, a former lady of means turned impoverished servant. This triangular interplay form the crux of this Reformation tragicomedy, as the latter two seek to become the Queen’s favourite.
Currently embroiled in a costly war with France, England’s opposing parliamentary Whig and Tory parties argue for conflict and peace respectively. Closest to the Queen’s ear is Sarah, who practically governs the country by proxy as Anne deals with psychological despair and chronic ill health. Even as Sarah maneuvers for greater political influence, Abigail seeks to restore her former station by currying the Queen’s favour through sexual manipulation and sordid blackmail.
Truly, watching Sarah and Abigail orchestrate their schemes is something to relish. Sure their veiled threats, devious deeds, and calculated lust can be awfully mean-spirited – but they are hilarious to observe as well. And on a certain level, we can respect their cunning wickedness for it’s brilliant effectiveness. While the men around them think of power as a blunt instrument, Sarah and Abigail’s resourcefulness allow them to seize public control via private trust.
Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz are pitch-perfect in their playfully rivalrous roles, but it is Olivia Colman’s tremendous turns of sheer anguish that steals the show. Never have you seen a supposedly noble monarch seem so helpless. Frequently wailing, crying and suffering from grotesque pain – Queen Anne is the perpetually aching heart of this black comedy. It’s this physical and emotional vulnerability that allows her to be so easily taken advantage of.
(Olivia Colman’s approach to this English monarch will certainly be far removed from her approach to Queen Elizabeth when she replaces Claire Foy in the next season of The Crown.)
Elevated by a profanely funny script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite is a breath of fresh air for those bored by the usual dramas of historical aristocracy. Stinging, scintillating and sublimely entertaining – Yorgos Lanthimos’ bawdy tale of domestic betrayal with national ramifications is the acerbic and acidic Oscar contender we’re rooting for.