Watching Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite” didn’t fill me with disgust and dismay for the entire human race. So I guess coming from the director of “The Lobster” and “Dogtooth,” that makes it a crowd-pleaser.
Lanthimos’ favorite theme, about the damage we can do to each other — sometimes with the best intentions — and how funny that can be, are present. But, with one or two exceptions, there aren’t the jawdropping moments of am-I-supposed-to-laugh-or-cringe cruelty that have given Lanthimos’ previous films their distinctive bittersweet flavor. This time, the screenplay is not credited to Lanthimos and his longtime collaborator Efthymis Filippou, but Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara.
The movie is a battle of wills in 18th-century England, as two worthy combatants battle for the affections of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Beneath her regalia, Anne is a lonely and isolated woman, prone to temper tantrums and crying gags, and easily manipulated by those around her.
Vying for the favor of the colicky monarch are Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), Anne’s longtime friend and sometimes lover, and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), a fallen noblewoman who has come to the palace to work as a scullery maid.
At first, our sympathies lie with Abigail, who endures slight after slight from Lady Churchill and the rest of the court. But once she gets a taste of the luxury that access to the Queen provides, she proves to be an equally conniving opponent.
Davis and McNamara have jam-packed the script with great, quotable lines, stingers delivered so politely that the victims don’t discover the barb in their flesh until minutes later. Weisz is particularly adept at eviscerating with a pleasant smile, while Stone’s Abigail hides rhetorical knives beneath her wide-eyed innocence. Lanthimos often distorts the image with a fisheye lens, making it feel like we’re outside the bowl, watching the feeding frenzy inside.
There are references to life outside the palace, to a costly war with France and to peasants revolting over high taxation. But those problems seem a world away from the cloistered court, where noblemen send soldiers off to die with as much disinterest as they order soup. The veneer of civility that covers brutality is barely deeper than the powder on their wigs.
As the schemes escalate, watching “The Favourite” is a lot of fun. But the cream curdles after a while, as Abigail and Sarah’s war starts to draw real blood, taking real casualties.
In the end, even Abigail and Sarah seem to wonder what it was all for. They both play the game very well — but is it a game worth playing? Anyone who has ever gone bare-knuckle with a rival co-worker for a sought-after promotion, only to find themselves just one rung up a very long ladder, may find Queen Anne’s court to be an uncomfortably familiar place.