The Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has long been thrilled by the awesome, hurtful power of human interaction. His fiendish breakout film, Dogtooth, followed two parents who never let their grown children leave the house, thus warping their kids’ understanding of the world. The director’s English-language debut, The Lobster, envisioned the dating process as a Kafkaesque bureaucracy: The story takes place in a hotel filled with single people who have 45 days to fall in love before they’re turned into animals. In Lanthimos’s most recent effort, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a doctor is forced by a patient’s vengeful son to kill one of his own family members as an act of cosmic rebalancing.
Given the director’s fascination with such baroque forms of cruelty, the British royal court at the dawn of the 18th century seems an appropriate playground for his next project. The Favourite is the first of Lanthimos’s films in years that he did not also write (the script comes from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara), but it’s right in his wheelhouse. The deliciously nasty and alienating comedy centers on a pitched battle for the attention of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) between her two most influential friends, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone). Lanthimos always sets his movies in chilly pseudo-dystopias, which makes a palace full of mean aristocrats an ideal match for him.
Anne, who ruled Britain from 1702 to 1714, has been relatively underexplored in pop culture. The last member of the House of Stuart, the queen was for centuries defined by the rather scathing things that Sarah had written about her after her death. The Favourite dramatizes and contextualizes Sarah’s assessment of the queen as egotistical and stubborn. Lanthimos places the monarch at the center of a surreal world—one where politicians race champion ducks around the halls, where the throne room is littered with royal bunnies who must be greeted by all those who enter, and where new estates are handed out as birthday gifts by a capricious ruler.
Into this realm, governed by Anne and her established “favourite” (that is, right-hand woman), Sarah, comes Abigail, a new lady-in-waiting who immediately begins working her way into the queen’s affections. The sniping between Sarah and Abigail essentially amounts to glorified high-school drama, only with more ornate dialogue. Their rivalry is quietly encouraged by Anne, who, despite being the ruler of a grand empire, is also a lonely, brittle figure who’s plagued with gout, wheeled from room to room, and constantly besieged by politicians and affairs of state.
Lanthimos heightens Anne’s isolation, and the oppressive strangeness of her court, in any way he can, shooting scenes with fish-eye lenses and at extreme, daunting angles. His style is showy, but the flourishes feel necessary, bringing the nightmarish qualities of the world to the foreground. There have been many period dramas about royal-court intrigue throughout cinema history, but Lanthimos wants his setting to be as cloistered as the prisonlike compound of Dogtooth. This stifling atmosphere—along with career-best work from Stone—makes Abigail’s flinty desperation to climb the ladder, even if it means serving the whims of a flighty monarch, all the more plausible.
Stone is matched by Colman, one of Britain’s best character actors, who so rarely gets to do leading work outside of television. She understands how to make Anne simultaneously monstrous and vulnerable, a ruler who treats her ladies-in-waiting like playthings out of a deep, insatiable desire for attention and affection. Weisz, who shone in The Lobster, is frighteningly good as the queen of the mean girls—someone who revels in whatever influence she possesses and can deploy a compliment (or an insult) with surgical accuracy.
Were it just a straightforward comedy, The Favourite would still be a success. It has plenty of satirical bite, and its plot structure (the roller-coaster-like power struggle between Abigail and Sarah) is an utter blast. But Lanthimos also manages to smuggle a shred of humanism into this chaotic world of backstabbing, leaving the audience with more than simply the impression that life among royals can be a pain in the neck. Despite its period setting, The Favourite just might be Lanthimos’s most trenchant and relevant work yet.