Equal parts sumptuousness and debauchery, “The Favourite” is a deliciously bitchy and humorous film involving same-sex love and revenge in 18th Century England.
The film, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”), and written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, opens Dec. 7 at the Landmark Ritz Five.
Like other films directed by Lanthimos, “The Favourite” is about power and its abuses. This story of royal intrigue pivots on the rivalry and jealousy that arises when a love triangle of sorts develops among the three lead female characters.
Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) is the often-ill ruler of England. She can’t eat sugar and suffers from a bad case of gout. She is child-like, both in neediness and, some might say, in her intelligence. She has Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) handling her affairs of state, which include making unpopular decisions about taxing landowners to raise money to fight a war in France.
When Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), a Lady who has lost her station in life, arrives one day seeking employment, she gets a job in the scullery. Abigail meets Queen Anne when she craftily gets by a guard and applies a salve to the Queen’s bad legs. The Queen is impressed and gives Abigail more responsibility. Abigail, pleased with her new role, remains loyal to Sarah — especially when Harley (Nicholas Hoult), the leader of the opposition party, tries to get Abigail to help him in court affairs.
The rivalry and jealousy arises after Abigail unexpectedly spies the physically intimate relationship between Queen Anne and Lady Sarah. Suddenly, Abigail, whom Sarah describes as “too kind for her own good,” is scheming to get what she wants. She makes it her mission to find opportunities to provide companionship and physical comfort to the Queen in order to curry her favor. Of course, as this happens, Sarah is taken aback, most notably when Anne insists to Sarah about Abigail, “I like her tongue inside me.”
Part of the joy of the film is the salty language, some of it anachronistic. (e.g., one character is described as “cuntstruck,” a term that didn’t exist for at least another century.) But it is also amusing to see these bewigged Brits behaving badly. A throwaway gag has a bunch of men pelting a naked man with fruit to almost everyone’s amusement. As Sarah and Abigail bond on the shooting range, there are some humorous incidents that result involving gunplay. Moreover, each of the female leads has a scene where she vomits, albeit comically.
“The Favourite” is not concerned with being proper. The games of love and revenge that take place — including blackmail — are actually quite cruel, but also darkly funny. (A clever running gag has Abigail being literally pushed around by Harley).
Lady Sarah insists that she loves Queen Anne because she can tell her highness when her makeup makes her look like a badger. “I will not lie to you. That is love,” she explains. They also bond while taking a mud bath together. However, Lady Sarah is trying to get Queen Anne to remove Abigail from the household in order to maintain her own favored position. Likewise, Abigail contrives marriage to Masham (Joe Alwyn), in order to secure a title and remain in the household. Whether her sexual desires are more for Queen Anne or for Masham (or both or neither) is left for viewers to puzzle out.
The film may not work as an allegory (the way some of the director’s work does) but nevermind. The costumes are fabulous, and the film features stunning art direction and set design. Some scenes are shot entirely in candlelight, while others employ a wide-angle lens to distort the image. The cinematography is exquisite as characters are followed down long hallways or into huge rooms. Every shot is like a painting come to life. The period music adds to the wonderfulness.
But it is the plot and the acting that make “The Favourite” so enjoyable. The dialogue is often arch and witty, with some terrific put-downs and wry innuendos. Lady Sarah is especially tart-tongued, and Weisz is marvelously feisty in the role. Weisz is hilarious in her physical moments, too. A dance sequence that features moves both funnier and far removed from the typical 18th Century ball is the film’s comic highlight.
Likewise, Stone is delightful as the conniving Abigail. Stone is a master of withering looks, most notably in an outrageous sequence involving her in bed with Masham one night.
And hail to the Queen: Coleman is terrific as the incredibly insecure royal. The actress has a skill for making her character honorable and horrible often at the same time.
“The Favourite” is decadent fun.