A. C. Fowler’s review published on Letterboxd:
Director Yorgos Lanthimos has a way of imagining and displaying the world of chaos hidden beneath the pretenses of civility. Whether it's creating the absurd world order in The Lobster, where singles willingly go to a special hotel to find a mate lest they be turned into an animal, or it's a world where a boy has the mysterious power to rain down sickness and destruction on a man's family in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, both of those movies show a world of absurdity concealed behind rules, morals, and conventional pleasantries. While I haven't seen Lanthimos's first film, Dogtooth, based on what I know of it, this through line extends from his earliest work to The Favourite, though here Lanthimos uses the real society-driven world of 18th century England to cover the outrageousness of what's going on behind the scenes. Because a version of this world existed, The Favourite is the most straightforward film to date from a director known for his weird projects, but that doesn't make this one any less impressive.
At the outset, The Favourite plays like a Moliere-esque farce. It's outrageously fun and funny, and Lanthimos's message about the ridiculousness of this society with all its mores is clear. We follow three women, each with distinct personalities and motivations. There's the bumbling Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). She's aging, seemingly clueless about the affairs of state, whines loudly about her ailments of body and heart, and is hardly presenting herself publicly with the grace expected of her office.
Second is Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), the Queen's longtime trusted confidante. That the court and country are following a queen instead of a king, and that the person most routinely whispering in the monarch's ear is a woman, certainly would rattle the men of the government. Lady Sarah is essentially behind all the Queen's political decisions, telling her that the war with France must continue and that the Queen must announce a tax increase, all to the chagrin of Harley (Nicholas Hoult), the opposition party leader. On top of that, Sarah is Anne's brutally honest friend. She doesn't allow the Queen to wallow in sorrow when they're alone, and both dotes on and insults her.
Third is Abigail (Emma Stone), Lady Sarah's cousin. After her gambling father causes her well-to-do family to fall on hard times, Abigail travels to the palace hoping her cousin can offer her work. Matching her new station, Sarah finds Abigail a job as a servant scrubbing floors in the palace kitchen. But Abigail is crafty and exploits any opportunity to raise her station to its former glory and beyond. To do this she attempts to curry favor with Sarah and the Queen herself. She at first appears to meekly arrive at the palace hoping to be of service, but we soon learn that she's "quite capable of some unpleasantness."
All three women are vying for different things that cause them to clash throughout the course of the film. Even though what each of them wants is wholly different, the three are inextricably linked. It seems that Sarah and Abigail want the same thing, and at a base level they do want power, but for different reasons. Abigail hopes to become a Lady once again, while Sarah wants to wield political power, for the sake of England she claims. To do this, both women attempt to become the monarch's favorite, and therefore step all over each other to do so. The Queen is the only woman with power, but also the one who wants it the least. Instead, the Queen wants to be deeply and personally loved in order to fill the well of sadness that has characterized much of her life. Sarah loves the Queen, but is demanding and mean. So when Abigail comes along offering sweetness, Anne jumps at the opportunity to pit the two against each other.
This back and forth among the three characters, two of them quite crafty, is what makes the film so exciting. Sarah and Abigail attempt to outmaneuver each other politically, though Abigail only uses politics to achieve her own ends. The civility of this society is bursting at the seams as everyone in court resorts to deceit and manipulation to get what they want, not just Sarah and Abigail.
While the others hilariously squabble (Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz give awards-worthy performances), something else is brewing beneath the surface. Queen Anne's desperation for closeness comes from a much deeper well of sadness than it initially appears. It wasn't until second viewing that I realized just how full of despair Anne was throughout. Her outbursts are infantile, but they're also moving once we see how worn out she is. Olivia Colman's performance is so remarkably strong, that she should be nominated for everything possible. And she could win all those awards as well. At once she creates a character so outrageous, but so understandably grief stricken.
By the end of the film all three women end up in a place none of them ever meant to be, and the only one who really comes out on top is the man Harley.