The Favourite With films like “Dogtooth,” “The Lobster,” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” The Favourite Yorgos Lanthimos’ internationally acclaimed works have been concerned
with looming domestic dynamics and battles among couples, siblings and families residing under one roof.
Those household idiosyncrasies and preoccupations of
the Greek auteur now find a new habitat in early 18th Century
England, with the fiendishly eccentric and entertaining
costume drama “The Favourite.”
Even if this unique absurdist has not exactly
been your cup of tea previously, he might finally
win you over with this deliciously “Dangerous Liaisons”-esque and thoroughly female-driven period film, co-written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara.
Lanthimos does not share a screenplay credit with the duo—an anomaly and a welcome departure for the filmmaker, who usually co-writes with Efthymis Filippou with his signature formality.
But this is a suitable, if not refreshingly looser canvas for his proven sensibilities, which then gets stretched over a twisty love and power triangle among British Royals. For all its expansiveness, the Royal Palace in “The Favourite” is nothing more than an intimate home of familial duels,
with compartmentalized walls that serve as pillars of confinement. In short, it’s a perfect “Lanthimosian” playground, complete with an array of mischievous backstabbers, tight corsets and a dash of eroticism.
Only sort of based on a true story and laced with plenty of creative fabrications, “The Favourite” follows Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, in an instantly iconic performance),
one of the lesser-known monarchs of England who reigned in the early 1700s during the war with the French.
An occasionally distracted and often irritable royal figure
with a mysterious skin condition, overall poor health and
a soft spot for luscious desserts, Queen Anne lives with
her trusted friend and lover Lady Sarah Churchill (an authoritative and stiff-upper-lipped Rachel Weisz, terrific) and tends to her 17
rabbits that tragically fill an emotional void for each of her
failed pregnancies. The duo’s royal order,
however imbalanced, gets disturbed by the arrival of the calculating, mud-covered ex-aristocrat Abigail Masham (a menacing Emma Stone, like you’ve never seen before),
who humbly accepts a position as a servant while courting an agenda of her own to restore her glory days. Initially,
an unsuspecting Sarah lends Abigail a genuine helping hand, only to quickly realize the treacherous intentions of the double-player.
Various complicities reach an urgent state after Abigail works her way into the Queen’s chamber as her new personal handmaid, and eventually,
crawls into her bed as her lover. A poisonously competitive streak amid the trio commences in due course, while a number of male stakeholders (played by names like Nicholas Hoult and Joe Alwyn)
wander in and out of the picture.
It would be unwarranted to define
“The Favourite” as a timely feminist film with regards
to its handling of female power in a male-dominated world.
And yet, there is a certain timelessness in its old-fashioned frankness about a woman’s fight to get what she wants and demand what she deserves by any means necessary;
brains, sexual appeal or usually, a combination of both. Often satirical, “The Favourite” also grasps the complexity of circumstantial,
patriarchy-defined enmity among females, obliquely bringing to mind everything from “The Women” and “All About Eve,” to “Mean Girls” and “The Handmaiden.”
As amusing as it is to follow the misadventures of the infinitely witty and resourceful Abigail as she plots against her Queen and Lady Churchill, “The Favourite” deserves credit mostly for rising the desperate humanity of its female characters up to the surface,
as they get challenged by their respective demons around social status, undignified competition and physical appeal.