While not everyone responds to the arch, idiosyncratic narrative style and almost defiantly ostentatious visual approach of Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster), at least he deserves credit for never compromising his unique vision.
The latest example is The Favourite, a witty and subversive satire of the stuffy British monarchy as observed through a sardonic contemporary lens. Plus, this surrealist exercise in historical revisionism benefits from a trio of wonderful performances by its lead actresses.
The story is set at the beginning of the 19th century during the troubled reign of the mercurial Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), against the backdrop of the War of 1812 with France. With the queen’s health failing, and her judgment questioned, her loyal friend Sarah (Rachel Weisz) handles more of the day-to-day governing responsibilities, including negotiations with parliament and foreign dignitaries.
That leaves a void for the queen’s personal companionship, which allows new servant Abigail (Emma Stone) to step in. Once Anne takes a liking to the newcomer, Sarah and Abigail’s cordial relationship turns sour over petty jealousies and greedy power grabs. Abigail sees an opportunity for a lucrative future, and Sarah feels threatened. Anne won’t be silenced without a fight. So with the country at war, who’s really in charge?
The Favourite is the most ambitious project to date for Lanthimos, and like his others, it might not fit all tastes. Yet those with patience will find abundant rewards amid the weirdness.
You’ll need to forgive the anachronistic embellishments throughout the screenplay, which don’t always jive with historical fact, and the head-scratching quirks that include random chapter divisions and the queen’s affinity for wayward rabbits. Such diversions are more endearing than annoying, however, in a film that demonstrates a masterful command of mood and tone.
This handsomely mounted period piece features exquisite sets and costumes, but certainly eschews the glamour typically associated with British royals. Instead, it chronicles a scandalous underbelly of insubordinate scheming that feels like a better fit in today’s tabloid culture.
The film is both amusing and unsettling as we watch this power struggle escalate between empowered female characters. And it’s deeply felt, rather than smug or mean-spirited, particularly in its sympathetic glimpse into Queen Anne’s deteriorating mental and physical health. Through it all, Colman (Hyde Park on Hudson) is royally ravishing.