“The Favourite” is not your typical period piece. Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest is awash with fisheye lenses and anachronistic sounding dialogue, not to mention some of his singularly weird dance sequences. Lead by three outstanding performances and a hilarious, biting script from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, it’s the most fun I’ve had in any film last year.
Set in the 18th century during England’s war with France, we’re first introduced to Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and her confidante/lover Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Anne is riddled with illness and is unconcerned with the state of affairs, which leads the hawkish Sarah to maneuver her way through the kingdom to her own benefit; that includes frequent clashes with Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), Opposition Leader in Parliament and a staunch opponent of the war. Her position is threatened with the arrival of Abigail (Emma Stone), her cousin and a former noble, intent on regaining her old status. Loyalties and sympathies shift fast and furiously as the two try to get the best of the other, consequences be damned.
The most fascinating part of the film is the shunting of male leads to the side. Hoult is very funny in his role as a messy b—- who loves drama, but it’s the ladies who are taking control here. And oh how they do it. Colman, Weisz and Stone easily give the best performances of their careers here, so much so that there was controversy over who is actually the lead. While Colman has been designated the lead for awards purposes, it’s Weisz and Stone’s bickering and machinations that steal the show. Weisz in particular seems to be having the time of her life delivering lines straight out of “Veep,” acting at times like a colonial era Regina George. Stone’s depiction of Abigail is perfectly suited to some of the more deadpan jokes, in addition to the layers of scheming her character does. This isn’t to discount Colman though, the veteran British performer gets the most showy role as the childish queen who, nonetheless, holds a deep well of sadness within her.
Lanthimos is no stranger to tone like this: previous films like “Dogtooth” and “The Lobster” operated in their own surreal, twisted worlds with a sense of humor so dark you didn’t quite know whether to laugh or be horrified. “The Favourite” is by far his most accessible, but it doesn’t skimp on the vein of darkness inherent to that time period. Though they may be the ones scrambling for power, these women have still been through a lot. The things women must do to survive in this world are never far from the mind.
Yes, “The Favourite” has some serious topics on its mind. But it’s first and foremost a comedy, and a side-splittingly funny one at that. For a film directed by a straight man, there’s a remarkably queer sensibility floating through it that recalls a drag performance, not to mention the snippy dialogue. It’s just a tremendously good time, and it’s a joy to watch women take control of the screen over men, on their own terms.