About a decade ago, when I was a young, budding, innocent cinephile, I heard about this film, Dogtooth. You must see it, they said. Naive and trusting as I was, I did just that. And I was never the same again.
Dogtooth is filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’s break-out feature about grown siblings confined to their home by over-protective parents. Claustrophobic as that may sound, things go very, very quickly from strange and intriguing to flat out weird, leaving one to wonder just what boundaries Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou have left to cross.
That film went on to garner an Oscar nomination, and Lanthimos went on to make more weirdly wonderful films, including The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (both of which he also wrote). With The Favourite, Lanthimos brings his brand of absurd observation to a script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. Set in the court of England’s Queen Anne in the early 18th century, the film is steeped in history as it follows the monarch’s closest advisor and a pretty young ingenue as they go tête-à-tête in a battle for her affections and favor.
But this is no ordinary period piece, evident from the start as dry, droll dialogue and intricate yet monochromatic costumes create a world so delightfully nasty it’s impossible to look away. Rachel Weisz, who Lanthimos previously worked with in The Lobster, stars as Lady Sarah Marlborough, a woman too smart for her own good who’s constantly three steps ahead of the men in the Queen’s cabinet and expertly attuned to the monarch’s every need and desire. Emma Stone is Abigail Hill, a woman of no means yet a distant relation to Lady Sarah who comes to court looking for any job by which to stay solvent.
The Queen herself is portrayed to perfection by Olivia Colman (who will play another Queen of England in the upcoming seasons of The Crown). Suffering from gout and the entitlement that comes with being royalty, Colman creates a woman so tragically ensconced in her palatial bubble that even her childish tantrums are equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking. As the women around her vie for her attention, playing a game of chess with their Queen’s emotions and their country’s fate, the politics of power become ever more warped and intertwined. Abigail uses her lowly position at court to endear herself to the Queen, and when she realizes Anne’s relationship with Lady Sarah is more than friendly, uses the knowledge to her advantage. Combined with an agreement with a scheming Speaker of the House of Commons, Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), soon Abigail is giving Lady Sarah a run for her money as the biggest threat to the future of the monarchy.
The Favourite is far from Lanthimos’s weirdest film to date (see above), but it nevertheless has his fingerprints all over it. It’s true that Queen Anne gave birth to no fewer than seventeen children in her lifetime, none of whom lived beyond childhood; it’s less clear if she kept seventeen rabbits in her bed chamber, one for each lost child. The brood becomes a stand-in for much in the Queen’s life, from what she’s lost to what she cherishes most, and scenes with these little beasts hopping about are among the best in a film packed with great ones. The director plays with perspective throughout, from seemingly hiding the camera in a dark corner of an already dim room as secrets reveal themselves to fitting a whole scene into one shot with the use of a fish lens to distort things just as much on screen as they are in the plot.
An early scene sees the Queen gifting Lady Sarah and her husband a palace of their own, and Sarah responds both grateful and puzzled, questioning to no one in particular the meaning of love and its limits. The concept becomes a theme throughout the film’s brisk two hours (which never for a moment feels like too much), as relationships are pushed and pulled to within an inch of their breaking point. One probably shouldn’t delight so much in such fraught relations, but the game of one-up(wo)manship between two women who’ve staked their lives on the Queen’s favor is so deliciously sharp, so wonderfully indulgent, it’d be wrong not to.