Eighteenth-Century British Court Lesbians Run Amok
Duck races, muddy face-plants, book-chucking, power-play pistoling, bewigged revelers voguing on the dance floor, and midnight sapphic trysts. This is a British period piece? When speaking truth to power means calling your Highness a badger because of some aggressive make-up choices, all bets are off.
Delicious and vicious, the early 18th century court of Queen Anne has never looked loopier and more fascinatingly relevant than in The Favourite. Imagine a palace intrigue feast peppered with pratfalls and crowned by a wildly unpredictable lesbian love triangle. More Black Adder than Downton Abbey, Yorgos Lanthimos’ arch comedy delights in dizzying impropriety and finger-snapping snark.
Olivia Colman plays the Queen as supremely needy royalty, a bundle of insecurities all held together by her childhood friend and secret lover, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). The co-dependent duo coo at each other between cat-scratch jibes. But the cowed Queen ever relents to Sarah, who couches her dominance in masterfully sycophantic slight-of-hand.
THE FAVOURITE ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Starring: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn
Running time: 120 min.
And Emma Stone plays Abigail, the put-upon cousin suffering from fallen fortunes. She pops up at the court begging for a servant’s position, but with simpering guile the clever opportunist claws her way to the very bedside of the Queen. “I’m on my side,” she says in a flash of candor. “Always.”
Sarah’s husband, off fighting the French, has entwined her family’s glory with his military fortune, so Sarah keeps pressing Queen Anne to raise the taxes and keep the country embroiled in an unnecessary war. Abigail therefore becomes the perfect ballast to Sarah’s relentless haranguing, giving Queen Anne emotional cover to punch back at the Duchess with surprising fortitude.
Most impressively, Lanthimos embraces grotesquery without losing empathy for the fundamentally pathetic trio. He amplifies the treacherous desperation in Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s sparkling script with wide-angle lenses that literally and grossly distort all the bad behavior.
The Greek director is known for far more abstract though equally acidic takes on human behavior, with kooky absurdities like Dogtooth and The Lobster. Here he’s restrained, with material that requires a more conventional approach. Maybe it’s that creative tension that makes the film deflate slightly by the end, in a series of moments that feel like editorial improv to mask a somewhat rudderless climax.
Regardless, The Favourite is a pussy-power masterclass and a #MeToo reversal of fortune, where the men are more dolled up than the women and matriarchal dominance runs roughshod over any cocksure behavior. It’s also a historical reminder that political administrations with vain, malleable leaders—especially ones with aggressive make-up choices—have been around for centuries. Cold comfort indeed.