Watching The Favourite is like watching a chess match, only far more entertaining. The game afoot in the historical drama by The Lobster director Yorgos Lanthimos centres on two women vying to be the favourite of mercurial Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Rachel Weisz plays Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough whose husband is leading the war against the French. Emma Stone plays her cousin Abigail, who turns up looking for a job in the palace, having fallen from her once noble status due to her father’s gambling.
The friendship between Sarah and Abigail soon turns to animosity but the audience is never granted an ‘aha’ moment as to why the two suddenly turn against each other.
In fact, their turning is not so sudden at all but instead a culmination of small injustices (perceived and real), expectations of what one deserves and lust for power – or proximity to it.
To see the cut-throat means with which they will go to fulfil their desires is a breath of fresh air in cinema.
But it’s not just the women vying for power. Fantastically funny Nicholas Hoult stars as Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer, the leader of the opposition in parliament at the time.
Harley is far more stereotypically-effeminate in the way he goes about getting power.
Harley doesn’t get his hands dirty, while Sarah and Abigail are the ones wielding guns, using violence as well as manipulation to get what they want.
The Favourite’s only flaw is the title cards Lanthimos uses to break scenes, which have the effect of stalling the movie’s progress.
These title-cards, each with a chapter number and a quote from the upcoming scene, make the viewer aware of the unknowable number of chapters and unnecessarily plot time until the end of the story.
For a film which already uses fades between scenes to show a jump in time, the addition of the cards is not only superfluous but also halts the pace of any otherwise agile film.
As for one of its stars, Colman deserves the awards heaped on her for her portrayal of Queen Anne.
The Queen is first presented as simply batty, but soon you come to empathise with her – for the loss of her seventeen children, of her husband, her faculties and physical health.
All of this psycho-drama-comedy is set against a gluttonous and gilded backdrop, a feast for the eyes as much as it is for the mind.
The Favourite feels anachronistically modern, with its characters speaking both plainly and in the heightened, imagined, English of their time and station.
But perhaps this rather exposes a flaw in other historical dramas, who are so wrapped up in perceived accuracy they forget the base human nature of the people populating the world.
The Favourite never forgets these baser human desires, of which power is one.
In some ways, the movie is tame for Lanthimos, far less obtuse than his previous works, but The Favourite is no less complex in its portrayal of women, sex, and power.
The Favourite is out in UK cinemas on January 1, 2019.