Yorgos Lanthimos is someone who really knows where his sweet spot is. He has signature obsessions: The mundane oddness of the functioning body, the pleasures of sickness, and the sickness of pleasures. He is especially concerned with both the conditional imprisonment of the human body - as in the clinical basement of last year’s disappointment The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the would-be resort in his scrumptious international hit The Lobster, the horrific nuclear family of his breakthrough Dogtooth - as well as the imprisonment of the soul in a uncomfortable body. That is the great fear of the characters of The Lobster, who lived in a futuristic society that punished the romantically unattached by permanently displacing their souls into animal’s bodies. It is the daily struggle for Queen Anne, the center of his forthcoming film The Favourite, his first feature from a screenplay not his own.
Written with formal expertise by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite is on its face a straightforward historical drama about a battle for power in 18th century England. During her short reign as Queen, Anne was sickly and belligerent, and warring political factions often sparred for her favor. There were also more personal battles in Anne’s milieu, most notably between the Queen’s closest confidente Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, and her cousin Abigail, later Baroness Masham. Some believe Anne was queer, and that she could be won with sexual favors. The Favourite takes that speculation and runs with it, discovering a spectacular dramatic superstorm within a period lesbian pas-de-trois par excellence.
It helps that the three central parts are played by three remarkable actresses. Cast deliciously against type as Abigail, Emma Stone enters literally covered with shit, begging her cousin the Duchess of Marlborough for a job in the Queen’s court. Duchess Sarah (Rachel Weisz, as gorgeous as ever) lays down the law and quickly puts her to work at the very bottom, where Abigail sleeps on a floor with twenty others. The eye of the storm is Olivia Colman, the great English character actress. She is ludicrously good as Queen Anne, who here makes King George III look like Congressman John Lewis. Anne is ill, stubborn, politically incoherent, prone to fits of rage, and easily influenced. Sarah has mastered Anne’s moods and intelligently maintains her position as the Queen’s best friend, but she turns out to be no match for Abigail, who methodically works her way into the Queen’s inner circle, sweeping out her competition with élan. She replaces Duchess Sarah as Lady of the Bedchamber, an all-encompassing job in service of a woman whose self-destructing body is at the center of The Favourite’s ever-twisting plot.
I won’t spoil any of Abigail’s thrilling machinations, but Lanthimos delights in her determination to move up in the world, and what a ravishing ahistorical world it is! Verisimilitude is seldom required in the luxury costume epic, but the oddball style deployed here suggests nothing so much as Barry Lyndon by way of David Lynch. Lanthimos has always been a semiotician at heartless heart, and the stilted, fractured language of his characters is his favorite verfremdungseffekt. Here he molds the typically ornate phrasings of the period drama to his liking, folding in Lanthimosian sexual and surrealistic anachronisms. (I learned some wild new uses for the word “cunt.”) He drops us into his scenes by way of hypnotic low-angle tracking shots, and outrageously, the most delirious fish-eye lensing this side of Gaspar Noé. (The sumptuous photography is from the masterful Robbie Ryan, and the production is designed by rising talent Fiona Crombie.) Yes, all this is to say that Lanthimos works with a heavier directorial hand than usual, but he certainly never staked any claim to subtlety. His chaotic, confrontational technique lends itself marvelously to the high-camp fireworks of the war for Anne’s affection.
Commitment is everything on a film in which you won’t get anywhere with restraint. All three of our stars find the right note over and over, and they never fear making themselves ridiculous. Rachel Weisz, always one of my favorites, picks up right where she left off in The Lobster and is clearly having a ball. She goes a long way by playing it straight, grounding the outrageous proceedings with her Pinteresque precision. As physically expressive in her way as Steve Martin, Emma Stone relishes her first chance to play an unapologetic bitch. She makes a lot of wild choices here. Watch the way she moves: Her Abigail demands an immediate, frightful bodily intimacy with each scene partner. Mike Nichols always said that any scene is either a seduction, a negotiation, or a fight. In this, her finest hour, Emma Stone is always playing all three at once. And much will be said about Olivia Colman’s volcanic performance. Let me only remark that between Queen Anne and her upcoming gig replacing Claire Foy on The Crown, she is going to be one of the most talked about actresses on Earth at long last.
As if The Favourite didn’t have enough to recommend it, especially to the actress-oriented cinephile, I will single out two more irresistible contributions: Eternal cherub Nicholas Hoult serves fierce femme face as Tory minister Robert Harley, and Sandy Powell remains the coolest costume designer in cinema. To quote, sans shade, a very different queen: Great gowns, beautiful gowns!