You can always expect the unexpected from director Yorgos Lanthimos. He has a tendency toward the strange and peculiar, as is the case in his latest film, The Favourite. Set in 18th century England, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is heavily reliant on Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) to take care of all of her political affairs. Sarah is content with the power she holds at court and swaying Anne in favor of what she sees fit for the country amid a war with France. Enter Abigail (Emma Stone), a former lady and cousin to Sarah, who finds herself working in the kitchens with the rest of the royal help. It isn’t long before she rises in station after Sarah gives her a job waiting on her. Abigail discovers that Anne and Sarah are more than friends and, in order to rise in status, Abigail seeks to gain Anne’s attention and affection, infuriating Sarah and causing an upheaval at court and in politics.
There’s a lot of royal frivolity running rampant in the film. Lanthimos seems deeply fascinated with the queen’s daily activities and not so much the politics. This isn’t to say that politics don’t play a part, but it’s used as leverage in a constant battle between Lady Sarah and Abigail, with Anne at the center of their competition to outsmart the other. But aside from the bizarre love triangle drama, it isn’t clear what the film is trying to say. The final shot is very trippy and doesn’t quite tie the film together; it also comes out of nowhere. It’s strangely intriguing, but not in a way that makes any sense. It’s sometimes not clear whether Lanthimos wants to make much sense, but he certainly seems to enjoy the ludicrousness of what he puts onscreen.
The Favourite is definitely more of a dramedy than anything else. There are a lot of laughs to mine from the film and the actors’ line deliveries are fantastically timed. Everything in the film is ridiculous, and perhaps it’s commentary on the royals and a lot of the nonsense that happens behind closed doors. It’s a spectacle, a push and pull of ideas and actions, character drama, and silliness. It’s never overly critical of its characters, which proves to be a problem when the dust settles and all that’s left is a shot of rabbits. What is Lanthimos trying to say? What does the film want to be? Is this a criticism of the queen’s preoccupation with her personal affairs rather than with the country’s politics? Queen Anne is portrayed as needing affection and distraction, but there’s also a sense of deep loss, which is why it’s hard to fathom her final actions with Sarah. If the film aims to critique the frivolity of the crown and the ways in which they handle talk of war and peace then it fails because the film itself never seeks to be anything more than superficial.
There’s a loss of momentum and a growing darkness as it enters its final stretch, a shift that’s very noticeable. The first half of the film is its strongest and watching Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone go toe-to-toe in their scenes is excellent and well-played. Stone’s role is so much different than anything she’s done before and she nails Abigail’s desperation as well as her cunningness. Weisz is fantastic, as usual, and brings a sense of patience and care to her character, someone who proves she’s more concerned with Anne’s affections than she is with one-upping Abigail and ensuring her place. Nicholas Hoult provides some laughs as Harley, a man of court desperately trying to sway the favor of peace with France in his direction. He’s incredibly pompous, but eccentric. Olivia Colman is wonderful as well, balancing Anne’s boredom and indifference with her life, as well as the excessive need for affection, with instances of sincerity.
The Favourite enjoys being whimsical and allows itself to run wild, but that’s also part of its downfall. It never claims to be something it isn’t, but should’ve aimed to be more than it is. The end is confusing, doesn’t fit the rest of the film, and is tacked on where it doesn’t belong. It also doesn’t provide much in addition to the narrative. By the time The Favourite comes to a conclusion, I’m not sure what to make of it or what Lanthimos wants the film to be. Unfortunately, the film is silly and superficial and never ventures beyond its comfort zone.
The Favourite enjoys being whimsical and allows itself to run wild, but that’s also part of its downfall.