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The Favourite is a deliciously wicked tale of sex, women, and power plays

In this version of Queen Anne’s court, everything from whispered conspiracies to duck racing is really about who’s got the upper hand.

Emma Stone stars along with Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in The Favourite.
Emma Stone stars along with Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in The Favourite.
Fox Searchlight
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Imagine you bite into a fluffy pink tea cake, only to discover a center filled with pure, bitter chocolate. Feel its astringency spread across your tongue. Savor the duel of pleasure and pucker it brings.

Now you have a sense of what it’s like to watch The Favourite, the latest acerbic confection from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, writer/director of movies like The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Dogtooth. Lanthimos has always been a divisive filmmaker — his brand of chilly, brutally funny savagery can be a bit much for some audiences — and The Favourite will not break that trend, though it’s more accessible than his previous films, with a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara.

It’s sort of a period film, about palace intrigue in the court of Britain’s Queen Anne (who ruled from 1702 to 1714), though certain elements of its mise-en-scène almost certainly never appeared in any royal court at the turn of the 18th century, let alone an English one. (Let’s just say it boasts one of the year’s best dance scenes.)

Anne was queen when the Acts of Union were signed and England and Scotland were united to form Great Britain. She also ruled during the War of the Spanish Succession, and waged war with France in North America for control of the continent, in what would become known as Queen Anne’s War.

All of this is only vaguely in the background of The Favourite, though. While characters fight about war and policy in the movie, I can’t honestly say I know anything more about those elements of its history now than I did going in. And that is precisely by design: The Favourite is not a movie about history, but a movie that plucks some shadowy figures out of history and it uses them to stage a devilish comedy of power struggles. In this movie, everything — flattery, friendship, feasts, companionship, sex — is just part of a giant chess game to see who will hold the allegiance of the woman who helms an empire.

The result is opulent and massively entertaining. The Favourite’s trio of leads — Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone — turn in some of the best performances of the year. And the film’s chilling implication certainly outlived the 18th century: Be careful when you’re chasing power. You might just get it.

Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in The Favourite.
Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in The Favourite.
Fox Searchlight

The Favourite uses the court of Queen Anne as the backdrop for a story of pathos and intrigue

In his previous films, Lanthimos has created worlds that are maybe two universes off from ours — similar in many ways, but with some cruel twist that makes them very different indeed.

In The Lobster, for instance, everything seems pretty normal, except that single people are sent to a hotel to find a mate — and if they don’t do so within a prescribed number of days, they’re literally turned into an animal. In Dogtooth, parents have kept their adult children isolated from the world since birth and taught them an alternate version of reality. No wonder most Lanthimos characters speak in a flat, affected monotone cadence, as if they’ve been through hell.

But The Favourite injects a bit of color into the monotone, since it’s the early 18th century, and people still speak in flowery language, at least at court. Its three central women, however, dress all in black and white, and like everyone at court, their morals and ethics come in every shade of gray.

Queen Anne (Colman) is in what seem to be her waning years; she is depressed, manic, binge-eating cake, devastated by life in general and her useless bunch of male advisers in particular. She finds solace only in her 17 pet rabbits (one for each of her dead children) and Lady Sarah Churchill (Weisz) — her companion, closest friend, wisest confidante, and lover.

Lady Sarah takes a mud bath.
Lady Sarah takes a mud bath.
Fox Searchlight

Lady Sarah has effectively ruled the realm for years, deftly manipulating its main players — including Anne — and living a comfortable life at the top of the heap. Then one day, her cousin Abigail (Stone) arrives at the palace, literally covered in manure after falling onto the damp road. Like Sarah, Abigail was born into gentility, but when she was still very young her father gambled her away to a German who married her and forced himself on her for years. Now he’s dead, and she’s seeking a place to live and work.

She’s put to labor as a scullery maid, but Abigail is no fool. She swiftly takes inventory of her situation and begins to find ways to rise up the palace food chain, gaining the notice not just of Masham, a gentleman of the court whom she starts to cannily woo, but Queen Anne herself. Sarah suddenly finds herself fighting for a position as the declining Anne’s favorite. And meanwhile, war rages.

The Favourite takes a dark view of human nature — but a complex one, too

Like a few other films this year — Widows, Roma, Support the Girls, and the upcoming Mary Queen of Scots all spring to mind — The Favourite is a movie about women who have realized that the world is stacked against them and decided to simply shove the mostly useless men around them to the sides of the frame. In Anne’s court, men can be advantageous pawns, but to ask them to do much more than bicker, race ducks, and play stupid games will lead to nothing good.

Sarah has known this a long time, and Anne knows, too. What the queen realizes even more is something that could serve as a general thesis for Lanthimos’s films more generally: Love, if it exists between humans, is never untainted. It’s mixed with people wanting things like power, position, prestige, or just to not be alone. Anything that looks like love in Lanthimos’s worlds always comes with some kind of ulterior motive.

In keeping with this notion, it’s difficult, and maybe impossible, to find a self-sacrificing act of any kind in The Favourite. While the relationships in the film, especially sexual ones, are indeed about desire — it’s a desire for something other than what most people like to think they’re looking for in intimacy.

Queen Anne addresses her court.
Queen Anne addresses her court.
Fox Searchlight

Dark? Depressing? You bet. But Lanthimos has a way of wrapping the whole matter in a package so laced with pathos and fizz that it takes on a keen pleasure, a black humor.

And how the film looks feeds into its feeling of grim, manic comedy. Shot by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, The Favourite often employs a fisheye lens that gives the rooms of the palace a claustrophobic feel, as if it’s more hothouse than estate, with everything from the lush foods to the rich woods and the candlelight and the flowers and opulence crammed into the middle, the edges blurry. You can’t smell it, but you get the feeling that everything’s gone a little sour.

And with three skilled actresses at the film’s center, characters that could so easily be reduced to familiar stereotypes — the crazy one, the conniving one, the social climber — are instead imbued with humanity.

In Weisz and Stone (who is American, but pulls off a completely convincing British accent), you can see the pain woven into Sarah’s and Abigail’s hard-as-nails exteriors. You can sense when they’ve identified their next move and when and why they’re about to pounce. And Sarah seems to truly love Anne, even though she’s obviously using her.

But it’s Colman’s performance as Anne that’s most stunning. She’s not written as a likable character, except maybe if you feel sorry for her. But there’s something regal beneath her slowly disintegrating façade, something that makes her worst moments — the cake-eating and the purple-faced screaming fits — even more jarring by contrast.

All of this comes together to create a film that is not, in any way, a nice period drama. It’s savage and messy and sometimes mean. It’s all for a purpose, though: The Favourite’s view of the world is that we’d all be power-hungry monsters, if given a chance. But we have our reasons. And even the worst of us deserves at least a little moment of dignity.

The Favourite opens in theaters on November 21.

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