The Favourite is a cockeyed costume drama from Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek director who has been disturbing the peace on U.S. screens since immigrating here with The Lobster in 2015.
In that film, Lanthimos’ protagonist says, with an emblematic cynicism: “It’s more difficult to pretend you have feelings when you don’t, instead of pretending we don’t have feelings when we do.” I did not pretend to have feelings for his second U.S. movie, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the story of a pitiless sociopath turning the screws on a wealthy family.
Was it a movie about cruelty, or was it simply cruel?
There wasn’t a hint of warmth, and only the barest suggestion of a sense of humor (it concludes with a self-styled god demanding and receiving tribute in the form of french fries). Humor and humanity are agreeably more pronounced in The Favourite, set in the early 18th-century court of England’s dour Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), whose growing affection for a new servant, Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), threatens the monarch’s most senior and manipulative adviser, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz).
It’s a merciless movie about merciless people, and yet it is more involving than his previous efforts, with a flicker or two of empathy to keep the jokes from being too smug or emptily scabrous.
For that we can thank Colman. Stone and Weisz are good fun as dueling courtiers, but it’s Colman as lonely, gout-ridden Anne who gives the movie emotional substance. In another Lanthimos movie, she would be the unappealing sum of her unpleasant symptoms, but Colman locates in Anne a chronic internal pain that is the residue of accumulated grief — in one surprisingly tender scene, we realize her pet rabbits represent children (17!) she lost to miscarriage or early death.
The queen’s condition makes her needy and vulnerable, and so she is pushed around by Sarah (this is loosely based on fact, much of the movie is not), who uses the queen’s confidence to advance the career of her husband, leading to England’s war against France.
Into this picture comes Abigail, trying to work her way up from family disgrace, starting as cousin Sarah’s protégé, learning from her tutor the ways of Machiavellian self-advancement. Sarah (played with a zesty ruthlessness by Weisz) realizes a bit late that she has taught her pupil too well, an idea cleverly dramatized by Lanthimos in a shooting match between the two women. Elsewhere the movie is acidly funny, though a word of warning: It’s not for sensitive ears.
If Masterpiece Theater provides a respectful portrait of period royalty, Lanthimos uses The Favourite to draw a mustache on such portraiture. The language is modernized and scatological, the dances look like something out of Monty Python, and the costumes are more about character than era (Sarah wears the pants in the movie, literally, while her political opponent Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) wears the most rouge).
Despite all of that, it’s Colman’s Anne who stays with you, and the movie’s send-up of royal self-absorption leaves you with unexpected sympathy for the royal at its core.
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. With Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, and James Smith. Distributed by Fox Searchlight.
Running time: 119 minutes
Parents guide: R (sex, language)
Playing at: Ritz East