Avant-garde filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”) breaks with making half-baked experimental films (“Dogtooth”) in an attempt to go mainstream. Good luck with that. Lanthimos is still making half-baked movies.
“The Favourite is an ostensibly ribald period drama penned by upstart screenwriter Deborah Davis and television scripter Tony McNamara. The predictably vanilla result is a cup more empty than full.
Queen Anne (wonderfully played for keeps by Olivia Colman) holds court in early 18th century England with the assistance of her trusted maidservant Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough. Blenheim Palace is the visually stunning setting for all sort of political and sexual intrigue amongst every resident and visitor.
Lady Sarah’s oh-so moderne cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) has fallen on hard times when she arrives at the palace, after being kicked into the mud, to call on Sarah’s generosity. Emma Stone is no Marlene Dietrich. Naturally, Sarah installs Abigail as a lowly maid rather than show her any familial favor. Abigail wastes no time earning fast promotion to become her aloof cousin’s number one rival. Abigail’s newly elevated status involves giving head to the Queen. The tasty honor comes at a premium since it means usurping Lady Sarah’s place in the Queen’s heart — cough.
“The Favourite” is a sexed up costume drama that feigns transgression without ever committing to the necessary nasty and naughty perversions essential to sell the goods. It seems that Yorgos Lanthimos has never seen “Caligula.” Where oh where are all those bodily fluids? Some audiences will giggle over the film's rampant use of the C-word in the Old World but so what? Brits do that every day. Too bad John Waters didn’t get his Vaseline-stained paws on this script to defile it in a way that could really speak to modern society’s porn-happy, politically saturated, technology-dulled senses the way it deserves. Von Trier could also have worked a few tricks on this (in-dire-need-of-a-rewrite) script. What a squandered opportunity.
The transgression genre desperately needs some new blood, or some very dirty old blood. Modern Cinema needs it badly. “The Favourite” isn’t even a pale imitation of the sardonic satire that it aspires to. Where is the Marquis de Sade when you need him most?
Rated R. 119 mins. (C-)
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