Yorgos Lanthimos tells stories about relationships. He clearly finds us human beings fascinating, but the way in which he carves his observations out of us us with such surgical precision makes me feel like Lanthimos isn’t quite one of us.
In The Lobster, he imagined that single people were so desperate to pair up, they’d agree to do so under duress, and under deadline, with failure to find love transforming you literally into an animal. In The Killing of A Sacred Deer, a man watches the innocent pay for his sins until he can not only admit them, but make a sacrifice to atone. These films strike a unique tone; Lanthimos’ voice is absurd but bold and unwavering.
In The Favourite, Abigail (Emma Stone) is a former lady fallen quite low. She’s at the palace to beg for a job from her cousin, Sarah, Queen Anne’s trusted lady in waiting. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is mentally and physically frail. Between painful attacks of gout and a nervous disposition, she leads a lonely life on her throne, often bedridden, frequently deranged with pain or paranoia. Her only friend and companion is Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who basically rules the country in her place. Sarah is a strict go-between, acting as a buffer between Queen Anne and the demands of her royal position, and if she uses that position to exert her own will and influence, well…of course she does. Wouldn’t you?
But Abigail is way more wily than Sarah first gives her credit for. Abigail’s had to do some shitty things in order to survive, and she’s prepared to do what it takes to make sure she never has to suffer again. She throws her charm into overdrive, ,and soon Sarah realizes she’s competing with her cousin for Queen Anne’s attention.
In The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’s gift to us is a power struggle between the three that is never dull, never less than captivating. Emma Stone is fresh-faced but clever and calculating as Abigail, the servant with major ambition. Olivia Colman is desperately lonely and deeply insecure, but her queen has learned to wield her power to get what she needs. Rachel Weisz is brilliant, as ever. Insanely brilliant. Sarah has made a deal with the royal devil. She has goals and knows they don’t come cheap. Pretty soon there’s an insane transactional triad going on that you’ve got to see to believe – and to some extent, admire. Obviously, women in the 18th century weren’t exactly in the best position, not even if you were queen, but these 3 are making choices and bargains. They are driven by necessity, and desire.
This period piece is soaking in, nay, fermenting in, rich tapestries, both actual and metaphorical. You eyes will drip with colours and patterns and lush landscapes, but despite the beautiful 18th century dressings, this feels like Lanthimos’s most relevant, most contemporary work. Witty, naughty, and sometimes disturbingly dark, The Favourite is stunning, and an absurd amount of fun.