There is much to chew on and savor in The Favourite– kinky asides, intriguing isolated moments, loopy dry humor adding spice to the regal period setting. There is so much marginal quirkiness, in fact, that I fear it’s obscuring the unfortunate fact that there isn’t much substance on the bottom line. It is a compelling but infuriating watch – brilliantly composed, masterfully performed, but in the service of what?
That question is especially confounding considering the film is directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, whose films are always overloaded with oddity, but usually with crystallized thematic underpinnings. In The Favourite, the themes are more fluid, which is locally intriguing but globally problematic. There is a cornucopia of ideas at play in this script, so many that Lanthimos, who can ratchet cinematic tension as well as anyone currently working, has a field day spinning one twisted sequence after another. But that also results in a sort of listlessness; there is so much territory to mine that the film lacks cohesive focus. There is most certainly a lively scene-to-scene cadence, buoyed by three central performances that are as devilishly rich as any you’ll see this year, by actresses who are able to pluck whatever fruit they choose from the screenplay’s broad thematic tree. But that accommodating broadness comes at the sacrifice of greater depth.
Up until now, Lanthimos has explored worlds of his own creation, offering human commentary by operating outside the bounds of understood reality. The Favourite is more conventional and on-the-level, an 18th century period piece about a fickle, ailing Queen Anne and her conniving subjects. The dynamics are nevertheless just as pointedly bizarre, English royalty put through the Lanthimosian ringer. The Queen (Olivia Colman) is quite frankly a mess, suffering from recurrences of “gout,” though history indicates it was likely a confluence of autoimmune disorders. She is navigating a fraught internal push-pull between war and diplomacy but also presiding over nightly indulgent parties replete with decadent hors-d’oeuvres and hilarious interpretive dancing (the unassuming injection of the moronic amid the stately is one of the film’s unsung strokes of genius). Her steadying force is Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who tends to the Queen’s ills, reins in her teetering emotions…and essentially governs the country in her stead.
Their bond, which runs well beyond the professional and political, is seemingly unwavering until the unexpected arrival of Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), Sarah’s cousin, who arrives at the kingdom seeking to become a proper servant, having escaped dire sexual servitude after her father literally gambled her away. This combination of innocent charm and survivalist opportunism makes Abigail a shifty, unpredictable presence, and one that particularly vexes Lady Sarah, who thrives in the consistency of the delicate power structure she has created.
Per the title, the Queen’s favor is the axis around which everyone revolves. Politically, as British forces face a mounting conflict with the French, she’s torn between forging a military offensive, a strategy pushed by Lady Sarah, and brokering peace per the insistence of Tory leader Harley (Nicholas Hoult). But it’s the personal entanglements that seem to dictate all of the Queen’s decisions, and when Abigail discovers the true intimacy of Anne’s relationship with Sarah, she insinuates herself between them, inciting a power struggle with implications for the country and the kingdom, though neither rises above each woman’s desire to be loved.
If there is one constant in The Favourite, it is the jealous thirst for approval, the ruthless clawing for validation. The situational execution is delicious, and the ensuing love-hate tangle between Colman, Stone, and Weisz is a fabulous labyrinth of conflicting desires. But that execution, a constant fascination with the function of revenge, limits the film’s ability to probe the internal psyche that lies underneath. Not that this choice hinders anything for these wonderful actors; in fact, it actually allows them to sink their teeth in with more zeal. But there are several momentary strokes throughout the film that suggest it could dive deeper – in its portrayal of aristocratic women as master puppeteers, pulling the strings of the men in power even as they become distracted by tearing one another down – and we are granted only mere glances at such implications. The surface portrayal muddies the film’s viewpoint on female empowerment… or disempowerment. As it stands, The Favourite is a madcap comedy dressed in formal royal garb. That’s entertaining enough on its face, though from Lanthimos, from whom arch humor is most powerfully used as a guise for deep-seated human pathos, one would expect something more.