Greek-born filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ cinematic worlds — in “Dogtooth,” “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” — are dystopian and malicious, where few, if any, good people can thrive.
In his latest, “The Favourite,” that doesn’t change. But this time, the bad behavior inspires wicked laughter.
In 18th century England, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) rules. Plucky Abigail (Emma Stone) endures a bumpy coach ride to the palace. There, a male passenger gives her a shove into the mud as she embarks.
She hopes to see her cousin, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), but Sarah, not thrilled to see Abigail, sends her to work as a scullery maid. The other maids treat Abigail with equal disdain, causing her to burn her hands with lye.
Cool, decisive and sensual Lady Sarah actually is running the show, attending to matters of state, particularly a war raging between England and France, while the spoiled, dotty queen sulks and pouts over her painful gout, dotes on her brood of pet rabbits and numbs her pain by eating cake.
Sarah, the queen’s confidant, also is the queen’s lover, further asserting her power.
But she meets her match with Abigail, who goes into the woods to collect herbs for a gout-relieving salve, sneaks into the queen’s bedroom and applies it while her royal highness sleeps.
Abigail escapes the scullery, gradually gains the queen’s favor, and is invited to join her in her chambers while Lady Sarah is out.
Thus begins an all-out battle of wits and wills to become the “favourite,” to reap the benefits of power.
The movie towers over most costume dramas, which often stagnate under the weight of billowy costumes, stiff dialogue and inert visuals.
But Lanthimos creates an off-kilter feeling. As the camera pans, the palace’s rooms and hallways look warped. The clothes are more grotesque than beautiful; the vulgar, wealthy men of the court are flat-out repulsive in clownish makeup, wigs and poofy clothes.
Thank goodness the women are bright, smart, sexy and funny, with pugnacious, invigorating dialogue snapped off like firecrackers.
Colman gives a scene-stealing supporting performance, the kind that looks great in awards-show clips. Though her character is outsized, Colman keeps her spirit reined-in and human.
Yet “The Favourite” falters, almost fatally, by not going anywhere after the war between Stone’s and Weis’s equally matched, equally compelling, equally potent characters, begins.
Lanthimos lets the battle go on too long, as if stalling for time, trying to decide. The choice for an ending is, unsurprisingly, a letdown. The movie wears out its welcome; its delightful nastiness doesn’t explode or evaporate. It just curdles and lays there.
Lanthimos’ spellbinding, disturbing “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” was so much more confidently executed, one wonders if he shouldn’t stick to modern dystopian times. Perhaps the pettiness of the past is too novel for him.
Nonetheless, “The Favourite” still packs enough pleasing, prickly girl power to be relevant.
Starring: Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, Nicholas Hoult
Written by: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes