I started jotting down clever dialogue from “The Favourite” in my notepad but I had to stop when I realized I was essentially transcribing the entire script.
Co-star Rachel Weisz has compared the dark comedy to “All About Eve,” and she’s not wrong. Like “Eve,” the witty “Favourite” is about schemers, trading barbs in a hothouse setting.
Here, the classy insulters are Weisz and fellow Oscar winner Emma Stone. They play a pair of women sucking up to England’s Queen Anne in the 18th century, and both quip so successfully you’d swear they have paid staffs of comedy writers hiding underneath their voluminous skirts.
“Thank you for the job,” says newcomer-to-the-court Stone, to which Weisz instantly replies, “I have a thing for the weak.”
“The Favourite” is all about brutality with a veneer of civility. The subtext is that there was a limited amount of power to go around 300 years ago in England — particularly if you had the misfortune of being female — so intelligent women relied on their wits to carve themselves off a slice. This, of course, is a good way to build severely damaged relationships.
Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is physically ill as well as depressed (she has a pet bunny for each of the 17 children she miscarried) and, as a result, she has become a puppet for Weisz’s canny, bristling Lady Sarah, who comforts and makes decisions for Anne. At least she does until Abigail (Stone) arrives and seems to take literally a remark that Sarah issues in the midst of sport-shooting birds: “We’ll make a killer of you yet.”
The sound of gunfire forms a backdrop to many scenes in the movie. It might as well be warning shots, given all the skulduggery at court. The characters’ relationships are complex and the power balance keeps shifting in “The Favourite,” which the wickedly gifted director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) makes visually clear in a tryst between Abigail and some hot dude who may be able to help her get ahead: As they rip at each other’s clothes, it’s impossible to tell if we’re witnessing a brawl or a seduction.
Late in the game, there’s a scene that suggests Sarah may really care for Anne but perhaps not. There’s a reason everyone walks out of the room backward when they’re in the presence of royalty and it’s not just to show respect: If they turn their back, there’s a good chance someone will stab it. In fact, you could easily walk out of “The Favourite” (backward?) without being sure if anyone in it believes in the concept of love.
Some will accuse the movie of being a sparkling bonbon that fails to delve beneath the surface, but I’d argue that what grounds it in something moving and tragic is Colman’s performance as Queen Anne. In the early scenes, Lanthimos encourages us to see her as an object of ridicule. But it begins to seem as if the queen is the one person who understands that life is not a game, particularly when soldiers are giving their lives in a war somewhere off in the distance.
Anne resents the job she’s stuck with and the way she is treated as a figurehead rather than a real person, and she expresses that resentment in an early exchange that hangs over the whole movie with its simple poignancy.
“Love has limits,” Lady Sarah tells Queen Anne. To which the queen replies, “It shouldn’t.”
⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rating: R for very strong language
and partial nudity.