Watching Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest film (his third in English and his first period piece), I was reminded of a young woman whom I once knew slightly and hadn’t thought of in decades, an articulate, pretty, graceful blond gold digger, who took her mother’s example to heart—to wit, it’s just as easy to marry for love and money as it is to marry for love alone. Luckily (depending on your level of cynicism) for her, this twentysomething Lorelei Lee’s wealthy drug addict husband obligingly died in a road accident while driving under the influence, leaving his widow very comfortably well off and ready for her next conquest.
I cite this not because I disdained her—on the contrary, her lack of bourgeois cant was intriguing, although she would have been more likable if she had shown any natural talents beyond sniffing out the dough. Because anyone—woman or man—who weds for money, position, or power is highly mercenary. And that’s what makes the obsidian-black comedy The Favourite so bracing: two alluring, clever, resourceful, and ruthless “ladies” of the early 18th century British royal household, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, Keeper of the Privy Purse (Rachel Weisz), and her déclassé cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), are so locked in competition for the favors of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) that her bedchamber becomes a key battlefront. “Intriguing” doesn’t begin to describe them, and “likable” rarely does.
Although the movie is based on actual personages, early in development Lanthimos jettisoned much of the historical detail of first-time screenwriter Deborah Davis’s meticulously researched script and brought in a second writer, Australian playwright and TV veteran Tony McNamara, who specializes in skewering dysfunctional families. Anyone who’s seen the director’s previous works Dogtooth (2009), Alps (2011), The Lobster (2015), and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) knows this is Lanthimos territory, a landscape frequently strewn with the detritus of warring relatives and tribes. The mordant humor he and cowriter Efthymis Filippou demonstrated in those four enigmatic films is buttressed here by a vigorous, stinging wit that indicates the status of the privileged castes, whose precise if bawdy command of the English language is among the most lacerating of their snares.
The plot of The Favourite (spoilers ahead) begins straightforwardly enough: Abigail, a one-time gentlewoman who was sold as payment for a gambling debt by her profligate father, has recently escaped sexual bondage to a gross old fart with a tiny penis and the credulity to accept her claim that menses last a full 28 days. Arriving at the royal palace to seek employment with her cousin the duchess, Abigail is kicked unceremoniously from her carriage into the fecal mud that covers the lawns. Where else is there for her to go but up?
Her rise from scullery wench to chambermaid is rapid after she gives the ailing queen an herbal salve for her debilitating gout. From then on out, Abigail will pivot between pain and pleasure as she inveigles to supplant the imperious Sarah as Anne’s most trusted confidante—and lover.
Sarah, who was Anne’s childhood friend before they became lovers, is not so easily dislodged. The hot-tempered, sharp-tongued duchess wields an astonishing amount of power, even more than her husband John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), a brilliant military strategist prosecuting a long and unpopular war against the French, a cause his wife advances. Their chief foe at court is the Tory fop Robert Harley, first Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer (Nicholas Hoult), who protests that escalating war taxes are ruining him. Seeing a vulnerable woman he thinks he can bully, Harley enlists Abigail as his spy, throwing his pal, the gentleman Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), at her to sweeten the deal. But marriage is just another transaction to Abigail, who sets her sights on the queen’s bedroom.
As the intrigue heightens in The Favourite, so do the film’s surreal touches. For sport, Harley and companions pelt a fat naked fop with blood oranges. The noblemen race ducks (the live kind). Anne keeps a menagerie of 17 rabbits, each standing in for one of the children she miscarried, were stillborn, or died young. The most bizarre scene is a fancy ball where Sarah and Masham cavort like acrobats before attempting a Soul Train-like line dance. (Weird dances also figure into Lanthimos’s earlier films, maybe to show that characters who are capable of great cruelty are also capable of great daffiness?) Yet it is through dance that Abigail shows her kindest side to the queen, coaxing the depressed Anne from her wheelchair to make some tentative moves across the floor.
For all the agency the three protagonists exhibit—unusual for women in that era, but again, the habitually antirealist Lanthimos here is playing fast and loose with history—they are each, in a sense, trapped like the queen’s rabbits, albeit in prettier cages. Anne is widowed and without heirs, never fully sure about the motives of those around her, and prone to self-doubt about her abilities. Sarah, cunning political animal that she is, can never really relax because she knows how one slip can bring everything crashing down. And Abigail, clawing her way to the top, is all too aware how closely her progress is being monitored by courtiers and the household staff. The fishbowl lenses employed by cinematographer Robbie Ryan (American Honey, I, Daniel Blake) allow the viewer to access the protagonists’ mental states, as we see the women dwarfed by the size of the royal estate and the threat of unpredictable caprices. In that hothouse atmosphere, one could easily be tempted always to look over one’s shoulder, although that action would not be advisable.
Power abhors a vacuum, and Sarah’s increased absences from court to oversee the construction of Blenheim Palace—Anne’s little “thank you” gift for all that Sarah does—embolden Abigail to press the advantage. Blossoming under the young woman’s expert ministrations, the queen rewards her with a higher station. But as The Favourite enters its final chapters, reversals await the two rivals for Anne’s affections. It’s wicked fun to watch their clear-eyed lack of sentimentality as they trade their bodies for her largesse—to the extent that for most of the picture the queen merits our empathy for being so used. But it’s not as if the royal is going to leave the gold diggers anything in her will. (In real life, after Anne passed, everything she owned went to her second cousin the Elector of Hanover, who became King George I.) The film’s final shot, a dazzling triple exposure, shows Anne commanding, not requesting, sexual satisfaction, and Abigail—though she now has a title, a husband, and more wealth than she could have imagined—complying on her knees. How far has she really come? v