Yorgos Lanthimos, the director of The Favourite, has risen to a certain eccentric fame by making movies defined by unsettlement, dream logic, and spasms of violence. But his latest movie is somewhat more accessible and even normal: A kind of 18th-century All About Eve, in which a young woman played by Emma Stone clambers from penury to power in the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), vying with a duchess played by Rachel Weisz for the affections of their monarch.
Their triangle is sapphic; their banter is sharp; the cinematography is vivid; the plot is unexpectedly straightforward. All of this has earned Lanthimos not only his usual positive reviews but a bit more money and audience appreciation than, say, 2015’s The Lobster, set in a dreamworld where single people have 40 days to find a new partner before they’re transmogrified into an animal of their selection.
The Favourite arrives at a moment when the period piece, epic and otherwise, has fallen on hard times. The special effects that made it possible to conjure sweeping battle scenes soon made those scenes seem redundant and banal; Ridley Scott’s Gladiator computer-generated Colosseum was a sensation, but subsequent efforts to recapture its magic succumbed to lousy scripts and diminishing returns. Meanwhile, contemporary wokeness makes it challenging for screenwriters seeking to fit the real conflicts of the past to present moral sentiments, leaving period stories stranded in uncanny valleys — just accurate enough to make the stakes alien to audiences, just politically correct enough to be a little boring.
Last fall’s other early-modern-Britain movie, Mary Queen of Scots, fell into this trap: neither interestingly revisionist nor interestingly traditional, and eminently forgettable in its portrayal of Scotland’s doomed and fascinating queen. The Favourite is more effective because of the way it sidesteps the trap — declining to excavate the deep conflicts of its era, emphasizing the past’s exoticism instead of drawing clear lines to contemporary political debates, and passing judgments on its characters in a jaundiced, misanthropic style rather than according to the catechisms of PC.
In a way, Lanthimos uses the court of Anne much the way he used the imaginary world of The Lobster — as a more accessible and rational version of that dreamscape, alien to us and yet familiar, in which people are driven to extreme behavior by strange constraints and arbitrary-seeming forms of power.
The permanent power in The Favourite belongs to Queen Anne, the last monarch of the unhappy house of Stuart, depicted here in the latter portion of her life, when she was heavy, gouty, and past all hope of bearing an heir — notwithstanding 17 prior pregnancies. As portrayed by Colman she is weak, peremptory, girlish, mournful, lusty — a whole panoply, ever-shifting, which her two companions and lovers and would-be counselors exploit in very different ways.
The established one, Weisz’s Sarah Churchill, is a no-nonsense authority figure, treating her queen fondly but brooking no opposition in her determined rule over monarch, court, and realm. The movie initially encourages us to sympathize more with the upstart, Stone’s Abigail, Sarah’s penniless cousin, who ingratiates herself first with the duchess and then with the queen. But by the second half of The Favourite, the coldness of Abigail’s machinations has thrown the virtues of the queen’s older lover into sharp relief, and it’s clear that the arriviste is more cynical in her courtship of the queen and more likely to be corrupted by her climb — and that her ascent will leave the whole triangle unhappy.
All of this makes for an interesting story, but also a somewhat suffocating one, with an air as sour as the unhealthy miasma that hangs about the queenly bed. Politics does intrude a bit, in the sense that because Sarah wants to continue the war with France that her famous husband, the duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), is winning, Abigail eventually allies with the foppish leader of the Tory opposition (Nicholas Hoult) and helps him work to isolate the Marlboroughs and end the war (and the taxation of Tory landowners it requires). But there is no opening into the wider canvases of 18th-century politics, no sense of any real characters or relationships (the women’s husbands included) beyond the ménage à trois, no preachiness about female empowerment but also no sense of what Anne’s exercise of queenly power really meant for England or Scotland or the battlefields of Europe.
Since Lanthimos is making a dreamworld, not writing a history, is it uncharitable to point out that the real past was richer and the real lives of his characters far less claustrophobic? That the early Tory–Whig wars, the foundation of all English-speaking legislative politics, weren’t just a matter of sniping by courtiers in rouge and curls? That the duke of Marlborough was one of English history’s extraordinary (and uxorious) figures rather than the limp oldster portrayed here? That Anne was a generally effective monarch who was probably slandered by Sarah after their falling out? That the lesbianism is unconfirmed and that the queen, no less than the duchess, had a passionate relationship with her husband? That the Christian religion (and simmering religious politics) occupied as important a role as duck races and sumptuous feasting?
Maybe shrinking the past to exclude all the larger conflicts, reducing tales of queens and their courts to personal rivalries playing out under tapestries by candlelight, is the only way to do a period piece right now. If so, Lanthimos has done something moderately impressive. But the dream that he conjures and dresses in the past’s costumes was one from which I was ultimately happy to awake.