Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has developed quite a novel shtick: He sets up extremely schematic scenarios that force his characters into very bleak decisions as a means of interrogating behavioral and moral codes he thinks are arbitrary or too rigid. That said, his sense of humor is so hilariously gnarly, and his style so self-consciously antiseptic, that it’s hard not to get sucked in when, say, Colin Farrell has to play Blind Man’s Bluff with a double-barreled shotgun and his family in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Lanthimos backs up his absurdism with formal chops: slow Kubrickian zooms and placid, wide tableaux abound. And his new film, The Favourite, his first directorial outing on which he does not have a writing credit, is no exception. But it also reveals him to be, first and foremost, a comedian.
Characters use anachronistic dialogue and swear constantly, the camera captures most scenes with a wild, fish-eye lens, and every nasty twist or violent burst is presented with an obvious smirk.
Loosely based on true events surrounding England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), The Favourite is, at its best, a blistering black comedy of “fear, confusion, and accidents,” as one character puts it. The relationship between Anne and her confidant/muscle Marlborough is completely disrupted by the arrival of the latter’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), allegedly a fallen woman but no less capable of deceit and violence in service of self-preservation. When Abigail learns of Sarah’s covert sexual relationship with the Queen, she of course leverages it for all the control she can. The whole thing is presented with complete comic exaggeration: Characters use anachronistic dialogue and swear constantly, the camera captures most scenes with a wild, fish-eye lens, and every nasty twist or violent burst is presented with an obvious smirk. That Lanthimos isn’t up to anything more complicated barely matters. The three actresses here seem to take genuine glee in beating the spiritual and literal shit out of each other (Weisz especially relishes her slightly more sinister position), and the production design is immaculate. But let’s not pretend Lanthimos murders whole families, makes the Queen of England talk about getting her pussy eaten, or has the royal court engage in a furious round of silly dancing, for any reason other than because he thinks it’s hilarious.