Few movies over the past decade have rocked me back on my heels quite like Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster back in 2016. It was the kind of movie-going experience for which the phrase “love it or hate it” was coined. Between its straight-faced WTF surrealism, its deadpan line readings, and its stealthy romantic heart beating under its chilly exterior, I was a goner. Here was a director, I thought, that I would be willing to follow anywhere. Well, not anywhere. Because Lanthimos’ follow-up, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, left me as cold and dispirited as one of the director’s characters. Our romance was over before we’d even gotten through the honeymoon phase.
After sitting through his latest film at the Telluride Film Festival this weekend, though, I’m happy to say we’re back on. Led by three fantastic actresses working at the height of their powers, The Favourite is a snapshot of the scheming court of Queen Anne during the early 1700s. But this couldn’t be further from the corsets and curtsies of your typical Hollywood prestige period piece. It’s more like All About Eve directed by a Satyricon-era Fellini all hopped up with enough sex, deviance, hypocrisy, decadence, and spicy profanity to make your average Masterpiece Theatre patron reach into their PBS tote bag for some smelling salts.
But back to that All About Eve reference for a second. Emma Stone stars as Abigail, a bright young woman from a once-titled-but-now-disgraced family thanks to a degenerate gambler father. Desperate for employment, she journeys to the Queen’s palace to call on her cousin, Lady Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough, looking for a hand up. Sarah (played by Rachel Weisz, a master of clipped quips who was so great in The Lobster) has become the Queen’s most trusted advisor — and, it turns out, quite a bit more (nudge, wink).
As for the Queen, who’s played by a wondrous Olivia Colman, well, she’s not in the best shape. The affairs of her country’s long war with France hold less interest to her than her 17 pet rabbits and she suffers from a laundry list of health problems, including gruesomely weeping sores on her legs that require constant massaging and dressing. This allows Lady Sarah to more or less rule from behind the scenes. Something that drives the ambitious dandy Harley (Nicholas Hoult, barely recognizable underneath a parade of baroque powdered wigs) fuming and in search of an ally close to the Queen.
Meanwhile, Abigail, no naïf in the scheming department herself, quickly works her way up from scullery maid. Like that backstage backstabber Eve Harrington, she seems to have every chess move of her rise to influence plotted out within her first hour in her new opulent surroundings (speaking of which, a special shout-out to production designer Fiona Crombie and, of course, the legendary costume designer Sandy Powell, who’s done some of her finest work here). The moment that Lady Sarah is away from the Queen’s side, the conniving Abigail swoops in to show how indispensable she can be. Soon, the two cousins are locked in a vicious rivalry, jockeying for the Queen’s ear — even if that also includes massaging her disgusting legs.
I suspect that some scholars on the Royals will take issue with some of The Favourite’s more salacious and fact-adjacent subplots, especially concerning Queen Anne. But Colman’s performance is so volcanically great, they may shrug and find themselves giving in to the daffy, fiery vulnerability of her portrayal. As for everyone else, it’s worth mentioning that compared with Lanthimos’ earlier films, including his 2010 breakout Dogtooth, this is by far the director’s most accessible film. Which isn’t to say that he’s finally mellowed or is playing it safe. Not by a long shot. The Favourite is strange enough and original enough and daring enough to please his longtime fans, while hopefully proselytizing a legion of new ones. A