Director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) has made his best movie yet with The Favourite, a pitch-black comedy about the court of Queen Anne in early 18th-century England. It is a movie to watch during awards season, especially in the acting categories.
At the start of the film, we see Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) as the daughter of a bankrupt noble. The prospects for poor single women in that era were abominable, so she seeks the aid of her duchess cousin Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who serves as the confidant/right-hand woman of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Initially, Abigail works only as a maid, but soon climbs the social ladder with a mixture of kindness, charm, and ruthlessness.
Much like The Death of Stalin, another one of 2018’s best films, The Favourite gets a lot of comic mileage from watching immoral, insecure people jockey for power. But there is more to it than that. There is a poignancy to the character of Queen Anne. While she would clearly be a tremendously difficult person to be around, the movie makes you see that it would be hard for her to be any other way when she has had every need and wish catered to since childhood.
Colman is terrific as Queen Anne, but Stone also turns in excellent work as Abigail. Stone’s natural charm serves the role well. At first, Abigail seems like another spunky underdog-type for Stone to play, and Stone indeed makes the character sympathetic in the first hour. This makes Abigail’s transition into ruthlessness all the more brutal and jarring. But even as viewers realize there is no “good girl” to root for (or good guy—the men here are all venal and power-hungry, too), it makes you understand why Abigail is doing what she is doing. The audience has seen how awful life was for poor women in that era, so there’s never a doubt as to why Abigail would do whatever it takes to stay out of that hell.