Yorgos Lanthimos’ last two films – The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Dear – both begin with an absurdity that leaned on humor, then both end with an absurdity that relied on the macabre. They are both strange movies that I adore. While watching, it’s interesting to pinpoint the moment your conscious stops processing the images as humor and, instead, begins to be sickened. What’s fascinating is there’s no true dividing line between the two. It’s like faucet water ever so slowly becoming warmer, but all you realize is that at one point it used to be cold, then, before you know it, it’s hot.
The Favourite (which kicks off the New York Film Festival on Friday) plays along those same rules, but maybe not quite as extreme. (Which, in essence, makes The Favourite more of a mainstream film than The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Dear.) Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, it’s Lanthimos’ first film that he doesn’t also share a writing credit, which shocked me because it feels so much like his writing structure. (Though, I suppose it’s less shocking then that he read this script and decided, “I like this and I will direct this.”).
The Favourite stars Emma Stone as Abigail Masham, a servant turned influencer in Queen Anne’s court, all loosely based on real-life events. Queen Anne — played by Olivia Coleman, who will no doubt get an Oscar nomination — is frail, often sick, a little weird, and frankly just wants to hang out with her pet rabbits. (After seeing The Favourite, you might talk yourself into wanting a rabbit as a pet. They are cute! As someone who had a pet rabbit at one point in his life, I offer this: They do make good pets, but they have a surprising mean streak at times. They can be litter trained, but they really love chewing through electrical wires.)
Abigail shows up at Queen Anne’s court a little down on her luck. She seeks a job from her cousin, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who, more importantly, is the Queen’s most trusted ally and secret lover. Abigail eventually gains Sarah’s trust, which in turn leads to Abigail gaining the Queen’s trust. Eventually, the Queen doesn’t even seem to need Sarah any longer because now she has Abigail, who is more than willing to be at the Queen’s beck and call in exchange for the power that comes along with that. This leads to a back and forth chess game between Abigail and Sarah for the attention of the Queen.