With The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, director Yorgos Lanthimos has become something of an awards-season/top-ten-list darling, one of those auteurs whose shots are rigorously framed and whose work lacks sentimentality and whose worldview is dark, dismissive of humanity's humanity.
These films left me cold. Not so much because of Lanthimos's lack of sentiment or the dismissiveness of humanity—these are two qualities that, in theory, are more likely to draw me nearer to his work than to push me away—but because he directed his actors, particularly his leads, as if they are automatons. Colin Farrell in particular, an actor whose work I generally quite like, was drained of affect, stiff at the joints. It's like he was doing a bad impression of Ryan Gosling when Ryan Gosling has settled into his Blank Mode (Blade Runner 2049, Drive, Only God Forgives) rather than, you know, acting.
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I'm happy to say that Lanthimos has not stripped the actresses and actors of The Favourite of their humanity: far from affectless androids, they are all quite human. Scheming, quick-witted, prone to hurt and anger, the members of Queen Anne's court are all a delight to watch.
Anne (Olivia Colman) is a monarch without a mate, husbandless and childless. She finds solace in the company of Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), with whom she is secretly sleeping and who is not-so-secretly running the affairs of state, including a seemingly disastrous war with the French. Sarah's cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), soon makes the couplet a tercet, worming her way into the queen's good graces in an effort to reestablish a place in high society that was lost when her father destroyed the family fortune and then burned their house down.
Whereas Lanthimos previously treated the physical act of love as something of a curiosity—who can forget Farrell rutting away at a lifeless Nicole Kidman in Sacred Deer, a perverse parody of lovemaking—Anne, Sarah, and Abigail all practically smolder on the screen. They are not dolls being moved around but flesh and blood and interested deeply in flesh (and blood). Anne, whose 18 dead children have been replaced by 18 living rabbits, is desperate for someone to give her affection. Sarah and Abigail alike are happy to use that need to further their own ends, yet both harbor more than a trace of love and lust for their queen.
Writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara have put together a rather terrific script, one filled with witty repartee and quick rejoinders. I'd be curious to know if the royals of the 18th century were quite as quick to deploy the c-bomb as the leader of the opposition, Harley (Nicholas Hoult) and others seem to here. But anachronism in the service of amusing dialogue is always forgivable.
Lanthimos's sets are luscious and lived-in. This is a full-on period piece with all the trappings. He has a distracting habit of shooting the picture with a distorting fisheye lens. I presume the effect is intended to remind us that we are watching life within a fishbowl, a curated and carefully cultivated world that bears no resemblance to the harshness of life outside the castle walls. I'm happy to grant his point, though I would like to register a complaint about its overuse: We get it.
I find it hard to overstate just how good Colman, Weisz, and Stone are; I'd hesitate to say career bests for all, but the three of them together have real chemistry. It's a compelling combo of covetousness and intrigue, tempered by a dusting of deep sadness.