Greek enfant terrible Lanthimos's latest outing is his least squirm-inducing as well as his most visually daring – perhaps because he is, for once, not working from his own script.
The Favourite was written by an unlikely duo: Australian TV scenarist Tony McNamara and British historian/first-time screenwriter Deborah Davis, who for twenty years had been pitching a dramatization of the chaotic reign of England's Queen Anne in the early 18th century. Their script, which according to Davis was tailored to Lanthimos's vision, recounts the battle between two women for the personal affections of Anne, and thus influence over England's affairs of state. It is a delightfully bitchy script, packed with acid-tongued dialogue and scenes of gross royal excess. Lanthimos joins the party by swapping out the cold Kubrickian style of his earlier work for snappy editing and an almost perverse use of fisheye lenses. Barry Lyndon this is not.
Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are predictably fun as the rival courtiers, but it is British TV star Olivia Colman, as the unbalanced Anne, who infuses The Favourite with a sense of humanity, bending the story from farce to tragedy and back again. If Anne has lost her mind, Colman makes us believe that it's as much a result of seventeen lost babies as it is of a life surrounded by manipulative politicians and heartless sycophants. (The film takes place shortly after the 1708 death of Anne's husband Prince George, but her recent widowhood isn't touched upon.)
Of course, this story has been told before – at least as far back as Shakespeare's King Lear, in which another mad monarch falls prey to evil flatterers while casting out the one who truly loves him. That The Favourite is rooted in actual history makes its familiar premise compelling, but by the time the film's glum ending rolled around, I had to admit that I felt no connection to the proceedings. It's a darkly entertaining chamber piece about an overlooked moment in history, but it doesn't feel relevant to who we are now, or how we got here.