The world seen through the lens of a Yorgos Lanthimos film is one of equal parts cruelty and absurdity. The mind behind bleak, pitch-black comedies like "Dogtooth," "The Lobster," and "Killing of a Sacred Deer," Lanthimos is fascinated by the darker aspects of human behavior, even as he maintains a certain empathy for the poor souls who indulge in them as a means to operate within (and sometimes against) a stiflingly structured society.
"The Favourite" continues the pattern, though it's in many ways the filmmaker's most accessible movie yet. Set in 18th century England as the country is at war with France, the film centers around the unstable and ailing Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Her closest companion and confidante is Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), duchess of Marlborough, who wields her influence to alter the course of the war to her own benefit.
Their intimate, mostly symbiotic relationship is complicated with the arrival of Sarah's cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), an aristocratic young woman who's fallen on hard times thanks to her father's carelessness with their fortune. She's put to work as a scullery maid, but sees herself as capable and deserving of so much more. In short order, she makes herself indispensable, wheedling her way into a prime position at the queen's side. What follows is a wickedly entertaining game of one-upmanship as the women scheme, manipulate, and generally act deviously as they battle for the queen's affections.
As an examination of the corruptive nature of power (or simply one's close proximity to it), the film doesn't exactly say anything new. But it's fascinating and massively entertaining to watch these fiercely intelligent women, embodied by three wonderful actresses, play off one another. Through it all, there's a sense that their behavior is a result of a lifetime of fighting for their place in a world dominated by men. This is what women must resort to for a bit of power.
Despite their best efforts to achieve influence, the men are mostly useless. Chief among them is dandyish Tory leader Robert Harley (an excellent Nicholas Hoult), who attempts to exert influence on the queen first through Sarah, then by encouraging his friend Masham (Joe Alwyn) to enter into a romantic relationship with Abigail.
But there are glimmers of genuine feeling between the women, especially Anne and Sarah. After all, cruelty and compassion can both be the product of love. We've seen Weisz in this type of manipulator role before, and she's great at it. Meanwhile, Colman finds the vulnerability beneath Anne's capricious exterior; even at her most needy and petulant, we feel for her.
The stylized camerawork gives this costume drama a modern flair, as cinematographer Robbie Ryan uses fisheye lenses, whip pans, and long dolly shots to keep us off-balance while conveying the enormity of the spaces these personalities inhabit.
"The Favourite" might be the first of Lanthimos's films that can truly be described as "fun" -- it's basically an historical, impeccably costumed "All About Eve." It's also the first of the director's films that he didn't have a hand in writing, through the script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara maintains his idiosyncratic sensibility. The profanely anachronistic dialogue, and hilariously sharp-tongued barbs lend the film a giddy energy.
Anyone who expected Lanthimos to deliver a staid period picture has probably never seen one of his films. But it's still somewhat shocking what a twisted delight "The Favourite" turns out to be. A scrumptious confection laced with poison, it's one of the most deliciously enjoyable films this year.