Movie review: ‘The Favourite’ favors an oddball take on historical drama

Ed Symkus More Content Now
Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) attempts to speak with Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). [Fox Searchlight]

It’s safe to say that the English-language films of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos aren’t exactly of the mainstream. “The Lobster” (2015) was about people who, if they couldn’t find someone to fall in love with at the end of a specified time limit, were turned into a wild animal of their choice. “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” (2017) was a tale of revenge about a teenager who had the capability of mind control over anyone who crossed him. Both art house hits, they were also very strange movies, which Lanthimos directed and co-wrote with his regular collaborator Efthymis Filippou.

For “The Favourite,” Lanthimos was given a script by first-timer Deborah Davis, then brought on TV writer Tony McNamara to change some of the tone, but worked closely with both of them (even though he didn’t take a writing credit). It’s a period piece, set in early 18th century England, under the reign of the emotionally troubled, physically challenged Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), and tells of two ambitious women - Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) - who both tried to get on the good side of the queen, either for love or power or both. It’s Lanthimos’ most accessible and accomplished film, but it’s still pretty darn weird.

Just the fact that there are three female leads sets this apart from almost everything else out there. On top of that, the film works as both a set of character studies of each of the women, as well as a darkly humorous story looking at what happens when they begin working with and against each other.

Colman gives us, in Oscar-nomination-mode, a Queen Anne who’s a pathetic mess. She’s a weak-willed, sniveling shrew who eats the wrong foods, hobbles around on a cane when she isn’t being pushed around in a wheelchair, has suicidal tendencies, and is prone to jumping between flying into temper tantrums, bursting into tears, having fits of laughter, and silently staring into space.

Stone’s Abigail is a down-on-her-luck former Lady who has been reduced to taking a menial job at the Queen’s rural palace, but who has eyes on regaining the status she once had ... at any cost.

Weisz’s Lady Sarah has long been ensconced as a close friend to the queen and has somehow wrested a great deal of control at the palace, to the point where she’s making important decisions about the future of England without anyone - including the queen - catching on.

It’s a story of political intrigue and accompanying backstabbing among the players. It’s filled with loud, obnoxious, wealthy, wig-wearing folks who gather at palace parties for eating and drinking and duck races. There’s an ongoing war with France in the background. We get to view gorgeous, candle-lit interiors and a motif of people either walking or being wheeled down long, ornate corridors. And there’s a generous supply of pratfalls, most of them taken by Emma Stone who, early on, contributes a wonderful, face-first tumble into a puddle of mud.

But despite the inherent strangeness of it all, Lanthimos and his writers keep the fascinating stories of the three distinctly different women at the fore. Is the unpredictable queen as feeble as she initially appears? Are Abigail and Lady Sarah equally manipulative and conniving? Is one of them more dangerous, perhaps more vicious, than the other? What exactly is the relationship between Lady Sarah and the queen, and what sort of relationship does Abigail want? What could it mean when Lady Sarah, teaching Abigail how to shoot birds from the sky, says to her: “I’ll make a killer of you yet.” Is it at all normal for the queen to keep 17 cute bunnies at the palace, naming each one of them after a child she’s lost?

The questions just keep coming, even as passions are ignited, jealousies are stirred, and everyone’s quest for power grows stronger. No doubt, it fits right into the string of unconventional films from Yorgos Lanthimos, and the theme he seems to be going for here, among these awful people, is “one bad deed deserves another.”

Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at

“The Favourite”

Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara; directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

With Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman

Rated R