Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has caused a sensation with a handful of love or hate images, including Dogtooth (2009), The Lobster (2015) and Killing a sacred Hirsches (2017). At best, he is a solid, dry satirist like a sour Buñuel; in the worst case, he's a cinematic sadist who seems to be just trying to wish you and you a very, very bad day. But it would be a mistake to anticipate Lanthimos' latest film The Favorite competing in Venice on the basis of what he has previously done. The Darling is a nasty treat, a fantastic little cupcake of a movie interspersed with thistle frosting. Based on facts, this epic drama, or comedy based on facts, is gorgeous and features a trio of wonderful performances by Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone and English actress Olivia Colman. If you have treachery, manipulative erotic escapades, and extravagant fit-and-flare shoot outfits for ladies from the early 1
Colman – who appeared in Lanthimos The Hummer, as well as the British thriller Broadchurch – plays a fictionalized version of Queen Anne, a lonely, obese ruler who introduced herself 17 Children and in one way or another they all lost. (She holds 17 beloved pet rabbits as a furry reminder of her grief.) She is embarrassed and shaky and suffers from terrible leg pain, which she mostly confines to a wheelchair. She also does not like to deal with politics and state affairs, which makes her a major target for intriguing Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), whom she considers to be her closest friend. Sarah has her own ideas about the future of England and how her war against France should be conducted, and she uses her friendship with the Queen to shape the course of events to her liking and advantage. Nevertheless, this friendship is more multi-dimensional than it looks, and its conditions favor the queen more than you might think. But everything sinks into chaos when Sarah's cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), arrives at the farm: she steps into a metallic silk dress that is covered in mud, stuffed by the carriage or knocked down what she arrived. Abigail is meek and polite, seeking only the most basic decency from her cousin. Sarah smells a rat, especially when Abigail submissively brings some weird herbal stuff from the forest to put on the poor queen's aching legs. But Abigail wins Sarah's favor with her dashing joke, and from there it goes on to charm the queen with her strawberry sunshine smile and alleged friendliness. These three women cautiously circle each other, forming loyalty and breaking the ties there. The humor is sharp and dry and sometimes odious, although there are moments of surprising tenderness. The love between these women is twisted and thorny like the stem of a rose, but beautiful to itself.
This tenderness is not something one would expect from Lanthimos. But he makes this fascinating material beautiful. Lanthimos and his writing partner, Efthymis Filippou, have all written previous pictures of Lanthimos, but not this one: This script was written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and it sings. It also mitigates some of Lanthimos' aggressive harshness while whipping the best out of his poker face. Animal lovers should also note that, unlike in Lanthimos' other films, most animals – with the exception of some unfortunate wild birds – are spared a cruel fate. There is a brief occurrence of rabbit tadpoles, but the victim shoots unharmed. And an indoor duck race – yes, you will have the chance to experience something like this! – does not end in the horrible way you could be afraid of. In fact, it is very sexy.
The Favorite is something of a story drawn: the 17 pregnancies, the lameness and the obesity are all based on facts, and Queen Anne was actually close friends with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, until the two argued. But whatever really happened, this re-launch provides a broad, generous stage for three characters who will do anything to find their way, and the actors they represent clearly have a great time. Weisz, who plays against her healthy, cream-colored pitcher beauty, makes a delicious shame. Stones Abigail is a captivating, wanton little girl – she gets some of the movie's filthiest and funniest gags, some of which are just a sly eyebrow. And Colman's queen is lovely in her embarrassment – she invites us to laugh at this poor, luckless creature, just to turn our laughter into a kind of stubborn sympathy. In The Favorite, everyone gets the reward or punishment, or the unholy mix of both, that they deserve. And we, the lucky ones, can walk away with everything.