The trailer makes The Favourite look like a darkly funny romp about two cousins competing for the affection of Britain’s Queen Anne. That it is, but then it hangs around for a while, like a court jester unsure what to do with itself.
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster), The Favourite strikes a deliberately discomfiting tone. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is depressed and dying, slowly succumbing to one or more degenerative diseases (historians are still unsure of her exact cause of death) and the effects of a sedentary lifestyle. Lanthimos, working with screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, is stark in depicting the queen’s desperate loneliness and the cold silences of a sheltered world without today’s cacophonous electronics.
Anne’s eponymous favorite, at first, is Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), a longtime intimate serving as the queen’s de facto business manager. Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), fallen into servitude as a result of her father’s irresponsibility, arrives at the palace asking for a little nepotistic hand up; once she has a grip on Sarah’s hand, though, she leverages it into a position as Anne’s new favorite.
The story’s petty depths are grounded in historical fact to an extent that might surprise you — or might not, if you know how monarchies work. Lanthimos pushes past that, though, to imply that the two rivals for the queen’s pained attention (and its attendant privileges) engaged in an epic sparring match in which they were not above doing physical harm to one another and even themselves.
The Favourite also assumes that the trio’s intimacies were, well, intimate. Whether Sarah and Abigail were themselves queer is portrayed as being almost beside the point: they both know the Queen longs for women, and they use that fact to their advantage. Sexuality, the film coldly implies, was merely a bargaining chip these characters were dealt.
The film has a fair amount of wicked fun with the women’s rivalry. It’s at its best in early scenes when Abigail’s status at court is still tenuous; she employs daring stratagems to drive a wedge between her cousin and the Queen. The most human, genuinely enjoyable moments come when Lanthimos’s camera follows Stone’s expressive face for just a beat longer than it needs to, so we see Abigail break the character she’s presenting at court to thrill in a moment of relief or triumph.
As the two-hour running time wears on, though, we start to wonder where this is all going. There’s a lot of attention to the political tension between Britain’s two competing parties (whose representatives take different approaches to currying favor with the Queen’s two favorites), but it never really pays off. As the stakes of the women’s rivalry gradually rise, we wait for a key confrontation that will throw their characters into relief, but that never arrives either.
In the end, we’re given to understand that’s exactly the point: the grind never ends, from cradle to grave. Point taken, but we’re left feeling The Favourite has ground on a little too long if that’s all it’s going to say.
That said, it’s certainly a distinctive film. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan lights everything in unremitting overcast, while the soundtrack stirs contemporary (to the characters) and modern music into an uneasy stringed stew. Stone and Weisz strike sparks while Colman suffers miserably, waiting for something — anything — to finally catch fire.