As many reviewers have noted, “The Favourite,” the new film from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) is like “All About Eve” retold as a battle between two ambitious women at the court of Britain’s Queen Anne (1702-1714). There is a major difference between the two stories, however: in Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1950 classic, Bette Davis’ Margo Channing and Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington were vying for accolades from the public; here the two protagonists are playing to an audience of one. This is a tale of political infighting that’s perfectly suited to an authoritarian, or post-democratic, age, like that we currently seem to be slipping into.
But like “Eve,” Lanthimos’ film is deliciously bitchy. The central conflict between Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz at her steely best), the Duchess of Marlborough, and her younger cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone, managing a smooth transition from demure to demanding) for influence over the physically and emotionally fragile monarch (the remarkable Olivia Colman) is historically based, but Lanthimos and scripters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara aren’t terribly interested in accuracy, or even informed speculation. Instead they offer an acidic send-up of the whole Masterpiece Theatre genre, shattering its veneer of decorum with icy wit and some utterly scurrilous invention, all in a style mingling flamboyance and surrealism. And in the process they make some not-so-subtle points about the realities of behind-the-scenes politicking.
The film begins by introducing Anne, commandingly played by Colman, as a woman suffering from a variety of maladies, veering between pathetic fear and outbursts of fury, taking political direction—except when pure personal pique erupts—from Lady Sarah, who prods her, in collaboration with her Whig allies led by Lord Godolphin (James Smith), to continue an aggressive policy against the French in the War of Spanish Succession. Churchill has a familial interest in the matter, since her husband Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatliss) is the head of the English forces and she wants him to get the resources to continue the fight to a glorious victory.
When Abigail arrives on the scene, it’s as a suppliant. Penniless and filthy after being thrown from a carriage into the mud, she begs her distant relative for a position at court—and winds up as a scullery maid. Poor but crafty, she works her way into the queen’s notice by preparing a poultice for the sores on her legs, and Sarah takes her on as her private maid, a position in which she can insinuate herself further into Anne’s lonely orbit—even commiserating with the queen over the seventeen pet rabbits that represent the children to whom she gave birth, only to see them all die.
Abigail also captures the attention of the wily Earl of Oxford, Lord Harley (gleefully portrayed by Nicholas Hoult as a manipulative fop), the head of the anti-war Tories, who forces her to become his spy, as well as the eye of handsome courtier Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), with whom she will eventually enter a marriage of convenience.
But that is not enough for Abigail. She intends to supplant Sarah, and when the latter responds to the challenge by attempting to undermine her rival’s growing influence, Abigail pulls out all the stops. A chastened Sarah will find that Abigail has won, and both she and her husband, along with their allies, will suffer as a result.
Lanthimos and his visual team—production designer Fiona Crombie and costumer Sandy Powell—set the stage so beautifully that you might initially believe that you’re going to be treated to a Masterpiece Theatre-style entertainment, decorous and discreet, but even in the early stages there are tweaks in Robbie Ryan’s cinematography—the occasional use of fish-eye lenses, for instance—that undercut convention. And by the time a ballroom scene arrives and Sarah and Samuel indulge in a dance (to music by Handel, no less) that quickly shifts into wacky, anachronistically modern moves, it’s apparent that a complete subversion of expectations is afoot.
That becomes increasingly clear as “The Favourite” progresses, especially in terms of the portrayal of the aristocratic lifestyle represented, for example, by Harley’s household, where some very peculiar forms of entertainment take place, and the suggestion that the relationships among the women in the palace exceeded any platonic norm. Lanthimos presents a take on the eighteenth century no less acerbic than the one Kubrick offered in “Barry Lyndon,” though in rhythmic terms his film, edited by Yorgos Mavropsaridis, opts more for the raucous raunchiness of Tony Richardson’s “Tom Jones” than Kubrickian stateliness.
As was true of “Lyndon,” reactions toward “The Favourite” are likely to be widely divergent. Love it or hate it, however, no viewer will be able to deny that it represents a singular vision, brilliantly executed. In other words, it’s Lanthimos.