Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz
Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity and language
1 hr. 59 min.
It was Mark Twain who noted the fine line between the comedic and the devastating. “Humor,” wrote Twain, “is tragedy plus time.” Through that prism, you may feel free to immerse yourself in the scalding wit of The Favourite, and understand the tragedy that weaves its way through this film. It’s Golden Globe nominated for Best Comedy/Musical against the likes of Mary Poppins Returns. The two could not be at more opposite ends of the cinematic universe.
Greek Director Yorgos Lanthimos, an auteur in the Federico Fellini mold, dazzles the eye and the intellect. The Favourite is both costume ball and festival of scheming. It’s based on the true 18th-century tale of two cousins viciously vying for the favor of England’s Queen Anne. The result is a neatly embroidered mosaic of the dastardly, the hilariously acerbic, the lewd and lascivious — all sewn on royal fabric. Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara gave Lanthimos the gift of a taut, delicious script, with rapid-fire, dry, witty dialogue that slashes like a cutlass.
Olivia Colman, who worked with Lanthimos in The Lobster, is the Queen — plump, eccentric, gout-ridden and mostly consigned to a wheelchair. Her court defies normality, filled as it is by knaves, yes-men and lords in huge wigs that look like their hauling sheep on their shoulders. There are ridiculous dances that put you in mind of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. Duck races, the stoning of naked men with tomatoes, the presence of the queen’s 17 rabbits and generally poor hygiene, all of which hold forth in exquisite candlelight. And we haven’t gotten to the sizzling, frank, engaging bon mots that devastate their targets.
Colman as Queen Anne, though firmly counseled through her fits of pique by lifelong friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), is in charge — no two ways about it. Sarah extends an invitation to her high-born-but-since-disgraced cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) to work as a palace scullery maid. Then the jockeying, the tussle of the bustles, the upper-class kissing up, the ribald rivalry, treachery, blackmail and manipulation begin in earnest.
Weisz gives Lady Sarah the sting of early morning on the tundra, her tongue sharp enough to saw through tungsten. Stone’s English accent is exemplary, as if she’d been raised in Litchfield. Her huge blue eyes are ovals that, even in cold-blooded deceit, betray a soul that is foundering against the tides.
There is something reminiscent of the late director Stanley Kubrick in Lanthimos’ work. He gave cinematographer Robbie Ryan free reign with a fish-eye lens, adding to the absurdity of the 18th-century royal fashions, the obtuse palace parties and machinations. Minuets and chamber music play on, and a clock-like throb accompanies intense moments as Lady Sarah and Abigail duel for the insipid queen’s trust and affection. And we’ve yet to get to the men, who function in strength on the periphery, regardless of the women’s power. Among them is Lord Masham (Joe Alwyn), whose pantaloons are heated for Abigail.
Already, it’s won a trove of critic’s awards, it’s nominated for five Golden Globes and three Screen Actors Guild Awards — Colman for Best Actress, Stone and Weisz dueling as they did in the film (with less ardor, I hope) for Best Supporting Actress. These are all elite performances, in an intelligent, near flawless work of art. As is the case with so many smart, darkly comic/tragic period films, all the seats in the theatre will not be filled, but all who choose to see The Favourite will be pleased by the depth of its accomplishment, in every aspect.