If you’ve seen any of award-winning Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos brilliantly twisted cinematic output, including 2015’s “The Lobster” and 2017’s “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”, then you know that he has been working his way towards his Golden Globe-nominated masterpiece “The Favourite” (Fox Searchlight) for a while.
Having already looked into the dystopian future and the brutal present in his films, Lanthimos set his sights on the past and the results are better than we could have ever guessed.
In a year short on reasons to laugh, both off and on-screen, “The Favourite” is easily one of the funniest movies of the year, right alongside “The Death of Stalin”. The last time there were this many laughs in an 18th century period piece about class status and family was 2016 with Whit Stillman’s delightful (and underappreciated) “Love & Friendship”, based on a Jane Austen novella. Co-screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara have taken the historical to a whole new and hysterical place.
Socially awkward and suffering from increasingly bad health (gout is a nasty disease), Queen Anne (an Oscar-worthy Olivia Colman) relies on her closest confidant (and, as it turns out, lover) Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz, equally deserving of an Oscar) for guidance on a variety of topics, both public and private. Sarah’s interests are two-fold as she is also the wife of Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), a general in the ongoing war between the British and the French.
Everything is disrupted with the arrival of Abigail (Emma Stone, who will easily receive more Oscar attention), a poor, but wily and perceptive, cousin of Sarah’s seeking employment. After an especially brutal gout bout, Abigail earns the affection of Queen Anne following the application of her herbal remedy. Before you know it, Sarah and Abigail find themselves in heavy and deadly competition for the Queen’s favor.
Other palace intrigue includes Anne’s 17 rabbits, each named for one of her children who died at birth or shortly thereafter; Sarah’s competitive relationship with Parliament member and landed gentry Harley (Nicholas Hoult), who wants nothing more than to also rise in the Queen’s estimation; and Abigail’s flirtation with and subsequent marriage to the dashing young baron Masham (Joe Alwyn), thereby securing her place in the kingdom.
It’s to the credit of Lanthimos, Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell and production designer Fiona Crombie, that a story as ugly as this should look so exquisite. Also, the anachronistic language and dance moves (voguing at a ball!), combined with the same-gender love stories, make “The Favourite” delectable to modern audiences, some of whom might otherwise shy away from this kind of story. If you see one movie this holiday season, it should be “The Favourite”.