Before she was stuffing herself sick with pastries and “furious jumping” with Mark Ruffalo as Bella Baxter in “Poor Things,” Emma Stone teamed up with Lanthimos and “Poor Things” writer Tony McNamara for “The Favourite.” The 2018 period piece centers on Abigail Masham (Stone), a financially destitute young woman who’s determined to become Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman) court favorite, pitting her against her cousin Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), the ailing Anne’s right-hand woman and private lover.
As with any other Lanthimos film, the setting of “The Favourite” abides by its own set of rules. There’s no such thing as foul play in Queen Anne’s court when it comes to those who outrank you, as we see when Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer (Nicholas Hoult, wonderfully nasty), casually pushes Abigail down a hill in the dead of night, or when Sarah off-the-cuff fires a pistol at Abigail in the middle of a “friendly” afternoon at a shooting range. Unfortunately for Sarah, Abigail proves to be a far more cunning and ruthless opponent than she anticipated. By the same token, “The Favourite” allowed Stone to subvert her adorkable gal-next-door image and kicked off her current trend of playing complicated and frequently off-putting weirdos (something we’re all the better off for).
As much as I adore “Poor Things” and its off-kilter Frankensteinian tale of liberation (an idea in keeping with the rest of Lanthimos’ oeuvre), I think “The Favourite” might still be my, uh, favorite of his films. It’s just three people — including Colman in a well-earned Oscar-winning turn — getting down in the dirt (and, when the occasion merits, getting down and dirty) as they vie to subjugate one another. With its razor-sharp wit and observations about relationships and power dynamics, it’s as purely Lanthimos as his movies get.