Starting with his deeply-disturbing 2009 Oscar nominee Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos has made a name for himself as a director of deadpan comedies so dark, you can barely see them. 2015’s The Lobster examined dating through a surreal satire involving forced animal transformations, while 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer pitted Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman against a vengeful teenager with biblical powers. Though The Favourite retains Lanthimos’ penchant for black comedy, this is his first film that feels recognisably human and – whisper it – accessible. You could probably take your Mum to see it, so long as she doesn’t mind graphic onanism, violent poisonings, and racing ducks named Horatio.
Surprisingly historically-accurate given the madness that unfolds, The Favourite depicts the relationship between grieving Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and duplicitous Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) in 1708. Sarah loves her Queen dearly, yet recognises that this shrieking, hobbling woman isn’t fit to rule. Instead, she plots to run things her own way by manipulating the feckless men in government (including Nicholas Hoult’s foppish Earl of Oxford). All seems well with Sarah’s plan, until the sudden arrival of her cousin Abigail (Emma Stone). Even more ruthless and cunning than Sarah, it doesn’t take long for Abigail to worm her way into the Queen’s heart and oust her older relative.
Whilst Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s screenplay is witty and fearless, offering endless sharp lines and casual cruelty, The Favourite wouldn’t work without its committed, frequently-hilarious central performances. Nobody does withering put-downs like Rachel Weisz, having great fun as she storms through the palace cutting down her rivals. Emma Stone isn’t quite as strong, struggling with an English accent, but Abigail is a departure from her previous characters; a schemer and villain who starts the film as a sympathetic underdog before gradually descending into an outright monster.
The highlight of the film is Olivia Colman, giving an outstandingly messy, chaotic performance as Queen Anne. Introduced shouting and bawling her way through the palace, Queen Anne is a tragic character, beset by a lifetime of heartbreak, and Colman gets under her skin as she tenderly loves her pet rabbits and expresses regret over the many children she’s lost. Anne seems easily manipulated by Sarah and Abigail, so it’s thrilling when Colman starts to reveal just how powerful she can be. She’s won three BAFTAS, four BIFAs, and a heap of other awards so far in her career, yet this might be Colman’s best performance to date.
Collaborating with cinematographer Robbie Ryan (American Honey, I, Daniel Blake) for the first time, Lanthimos uses natural light and gorgeous close-ups to create a raw, naturalistic period drama reminiscent of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. However, the decision to repeatedly use a fisheye lens is an odd one, and it’s hard to see why Lanthimos chose it. Similarly, the screenplay has its downfalls; the final half hour is an anti-climax after the twists and turns of the middle hour, while the ending doesn’t quite leave you satisfied.
Darkly funny even as it gets progressively nasty, The Favourite is a fearless, staunchly-feminist story that frames topical subjects of sexuality and gender through a pitch-black period drama. Offering terrific performances from Colman, Weisz and Stone, lovely cinematography, and a screenplay that beautifully mixes comedy and tragedy, The Favourite is an impressive leap into the mainstream for Lanthimos. Keep your eye out for whatever film he decides to make next.