December 8, 2018
bigail’s trip from the English slums to the queen’s sprawling palace sucked. Not taking into account her life story, which involved her erstwhile royal dad boozing and gambling their fortune away and selling her to a German dude when she was a kid, the journey, just in terms of location-hopping, took days, and was excruciatingly uncomfortable. The stagecoach was so cramped that Abigail couldn’t so
much as lean back. Even worse, she had to sit across from a lecherous guy who at one point started openly masturbating while making eye contact with her. Then, once she finally arrived at the queen’s residence, Abigail was literally booted from the carriage, and promptly landed, face first, on top of a miric puddle. "This mud stinks," she groans.
Abigail, who is played by Emma Stone, is not simply a lowly young woman looking for employment, as she at first appears. She is the cousin of Sarah (Rachel Weisz), a duchess currently serving as Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman) wingwoman, confidante, and, as Abigail fortuitously discovers later, lover. She believes that using her familial connection could help her overcome her plebeian roots. And she’s right, sort of. Sarah takes her in, though isn’t so quick to accommodate her younger cousin: At the outset, Abigail is sent to work as a scullery maid. She’ll scrub the floors; she’ll clean up the messes left by the duck races the queen frequently hosts in her noble abode.
It’s the 1700s; there’s a war going on. If you’re among the ordinary, you must fight tooth and nail to become something more. Abigail knows this. Soon, we learn that she’s a born schemer: she's looking to rise to the top of the social ladder; she wants to clink glasses with the queen and romance beauts who can promise her material and money.
Abigail’s ambition to get friendly with the queen takes precedence, though. And the objective proves itself not so far-fetched. The royal, a mercurial, tantrum-prone gorgon who eventually has to be wheeled around because of gout, is so vulnerable and desperate to be liked that it doesn’t take much to get on her good side. (Which also means it doesn’t take much for her to deem you undesirable, either.) For Abigail, the social-climbing process kicks off quickly. One night, she sneaks out to grab some herbs for Anne’s leg pains. Later, she creeps into the latter’s bedroom to apply a homemade remedy while she’s sleeping. The next day, Anne’s asking Sarah what that soothing thing on her legs is. May the quest to become the queen’s favorite begin.
The Favourite is the Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ sixth sole feature-length effort, and it seems likely that it will be his mainstream breakthrough. For years, though, these ideas of intrusion have never much crossed the minds of many of his followers, including myself. Lanthimos' movies, usually gallows comedies fitted with off-the-wall and sometimes alienating premises, have consistently catered to the love-it-or-hate-it label. I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum: I loved The Lobster, which was a bruisingly funny psychosexual farce, but I loathed The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which was a muted, twisted horror extravaganza.
The Favourite, in contrast to its divisive predecessors, is accessible and streamlined. Drawing from an excellent script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara — making for the first time Lanthimos hasn’t co-written one of his screenplays — it’s a lavish, searingly funny period piece. While watching The Favourite, I was reminded, storywise, of the melodrama and back-stabbing of Les Liaisons dangereuses and the broad, scheme-driven comic styles of Ruthless People and The War of the Roses. Artistically, the film’s subversions, which include a perennial use of a fish-eye lens and a preoccupation with natural lighting, are reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, a similarly wound-up movie which went so far in its shaking-up of genre praxes that it used rock music from the 1970s and ‘80s as its soundtrack.
But The Favourite isn’t just flash and high-wired comedy. Lanthimos and his collaborators additionally dig at the vulnerabilities of the characters just as much as they do their harebrained antics. After a while, most members of the ensemble come to look like tragic characters rather than the superficial, greedy power players they at first seem to be. The leads gnaw on their respective roles as if they were Charleston Chews. Nicholas Hoult, buried under towering wigs and caked-on, Baby Jane-like makeup, is a superbly acrimonious foil to the ever-manipulative Stone character. The mop-headed Joe Alwyn — better known as Taylor Swift’s boyfriend in the states — is wondrously goofy as the young man vying for Stone’s affections.
It is, of course, the trio at the center of The Favourite that makes the utmost impression. Previous Lanthimos collaborator Weisz is exquisite as the ambitious, cutthroat fallback who’s actually softer than she seems. Stone, with her carp eyes always searching, astounds as a villainess you don’t quite want to call a villainess. I suspect, however, that the biggest revelation to most will be Colman. Though she’s one of the most uniformly great actresses working, she has long-remained a little-known actress. In The Favourite, though, she gives a performance so defined by its bluster and wild mix of tomfoolery and heartbreak that it’s her, not necessarily the bigger names opposite her, who you won’t be able to stop thinking about. Then again, there’s little about The Favourite which doesn’t leave an impression. By the time it inevitably becomes both a best-of-the-year listicle mainstay and an awards pilferer, it’ll still be sticking around in the memory as if you’d seen it just a day or two ago. A
A version of this review also appeared in The Daily.