The Favourite: Lanthimos transforms the stuffy petticoat drama into a surreal, hilarious, and disturbing sexual power play

In early-18th century England, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) rules with the help of the forceful Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz). The monarch’s deteriorating health entrenches Lady Sarah’s control – until fallen aristocrat Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives as a maid, sparking a competition for the frail queen’s favour.

Yorgos Lanthimos arrived in 2015 to an English-speaking audience with his quirky film The Lobster. In the three years since, he has worked hard to deliver the bleak Killing of a Sacred Deer and now the ridiculous The Favourite. His latest immediately sweeping viewers into a world of lengthy corridors, extravagant living, and court power-plays, the characters seem inevitably trapped in a spiderweb of public persona versus private deals. That’s not to say any of them lack social power – the cast we follow are the cream of the crop in Stuart England, and act like it. The inevitability lies in the predictability of history and human behaviour. That’s where Lanthimos, and screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, excel in creating characters we can despise, laugh at, and feels sorry for all at once. The manipulative actions of the Queen and her court are entirely self-driven – but each action plays out towards an inevitable conclusion of misery and societal entrapment. The end plays to this particularly well. It takes a second or even third viewing, but may be Lanthimos’ best conclusion yet.

Another important thematic factor in The Favourite is sexuality and power. Lanthimos has a pronounced fascination with recasting love as a power measure, a tool used to manipulate others, seen across his body of work. Although not marketed as an explicitly LGBTQ+ work, The Favourite’s treatment of female and male sexuality is interesting. The male characters in the film lack sexual appeal or power, and their drive is a shackle. For the Queen, sex is human connection she cannot otherwise achieve due to her position. For Lady Sarah, it’s control. For Abigail, it’s revenge and freedom. The three use each other’s bodies like a war zone, with skirmishes and full-blown conflicts played out under layers of petticoats. Combining this with overt comedy at points may have been challenging for lesser actors – but these three excel.

Olivia Colman must get major plaudits as the vulnerable and unhinged Queen Anne, and she certainly takes home the comedy award. Emma Stone puts in an unnerving performance as the predatory Abigail, determined to achieve power and favour by any means. But the true lead performance in The Favourite comes from a steely Rachel Weisz. Stern, towering, and ruthless, Lady Sarah is every bit a political schemer, but also flashes occasional glimpses of real, vulnerable humanity as her position becomes increasingly threatened. Nicholas Holt also puts in a dastardly turn as foppish politician Lord Harley, summing up an all-star ensemble.

The last major jewel in the crown is the cinematography. The palace is beautiful, decorated with elaborate art and opulent rooms that disorientate and dizzy the viewer. This feeling of being trapped in a dollhouse is accentuated by the camera work. The fish eye lens and long tracking shots both shrink the scene to claustrophobic levels and blow out the palace to a gigantic scale respectively. They leave the viewer feeling trapped and with no option but to continue – the same as the ruffled-and-petticoated characters inside.

The Favourite will undoubtedly endear more people to Lanthimos’ work than ever. Biting, hilarious, and intriguing, this raw and sexualised game of chess keeps you on the edge of your seat and leaves you emotionally drained.

More intrigue from Lanthimos, and one of the most interesting and accessible takes on the ‘royal romp’ genre. 7.5/10

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