Yorgos Lanthimos delivers everything you might expect visually from him in his first period piece. The Greek director’s meticulous attention to detail and exacting standards are brought to bear in The Favourite. It’s a sumptuous, visually arresting examination of power struggles in the early 18th century English royal court. Many of Lanthimos’ thematic preoccupations are present as well: the blackest of comedy that highlights the worst instincts and actions of which humans are capable; how his characters wield power over others; the mingling of the humorous and horrific to shock and disturb his audience.
While the nihilistic aesthetic Lanthimos employed in films like The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer remains essentially unchanged in The Favourite, the effect becomes numbing here (especially in the final act) where it doesn’t in the earlier films. This is another morality tale like The Lobster and Sacred Deer. In The Favourite, the ultimate moral is: be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it.
In the royal court of Queen Anne, one woman holds Her Majesty’s complete attention. Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, acts as the Queen’s adviser and dearest friend. Sarah’s husband, John, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, leads the English forces in an on-going war with France. Sarah’s hold over the Queen is so great that she can convince Anne to raise taxes on the aristocracy in order to fund her husband’s campaign. Robert Harley, a member of parliament, who, as a wealthy landowner, objects to the tax increase, works to diminish Sarah’s influence.
But the real palace intrigue – and the crux of the film – begins with the arrival of Abigail Hill. Abigail is Sarah’s cousin, and she has fallen on hard times. Her father, a degenerate gambler, lost Abigail in a card game, and she has come to Sarah to plead for a job. Her real intentions to scheme her way back into the aristocracy threatens Sarah’s position of power, and sets off a bitter struggle to be the Queen’s favourite.
The screenplay – only the second of Lanthimos’ films not wholly or co-written by the director – is the work of Deborah Davis. She wrote the first draft in 1998, and her passionate determination for the project finally brought it to the screen two decades later. The story is based on true events; Davis has spoken about how the power struggle between Sarah and Abigail for the Queen’s affections is well documented.
Presumably less so were the more salacious aspects of Lanthimos’ finished product. In the movie, the affections the two women seek from the Queen are physical as well as emotional. This unique triangle sets up one of the most compelling things about The Favourite. While male characters are present and active in the film, their overall effect to the story is somewhat periphery.
Robert Harley schemes for inside information from Abigail about the Queen and Sarah. A hot-blooded courtier, Samuel Masham, lusts after Abigail. Both concerns are relegated to subplots, however. The funniest representation of this is a scene in which Abigail distractedly gives Masham a hand job as she obsesses over her enemy, Sarah. In the background, Masham is reduced to orgasmic moans while Abigail’s preoccupation with Sarah is the real focus of the sequence.
It is definitively the women on screen who dominate this movie. Just as in films of the 1970s with gritty antiheros (like Taxi Driver or The Conversation), the characters at the center of this movie also display questionable motivations and a lack of sympathetic characteristics. In The Favourite, they just happen to be women. It shouldn’t still be the case, but that’s one of the most daring things about the film. These are not idealized women stripped of agency. They are fully realized characters with desires, flaws, and the confidence to act.
Both Lanthimos and the movie have the benefit of three extraordinarily talented actors bringing the women at the center of The Favourite to devilish life.
Olivia Colman seeps madness as the mercurial Queen Anne. Colman’s fits of rage and weeping keep us disoriented. The real Queen Anne had 17 children, 12 of whom were either stillborn or miscarriages. Only one child survived beyond the age of two. The movie version of Anne keeps a pet rabbit for each one, and she morbidly celebrates birthdays with the rabbits as stand-ins for the children she lost. These rabbits play a pivotal role in the final shot of the film. It’s a triple dissolve, and it eschews subtlety for a final image that is a bit too on the nose to be satisfying.
Rachel Weisz is chilling as the controlling Sarah. She drips either poison or praise about her enemies or friends into the ear of Anne. Emma Stone is equally effective as the scheming Abigail. The Arizona native performs a flawless (at least to these American ears) British accent. Stone’s subtle facial expressions telegraphing her conniving nature are brilliant. There is one mysterious shot of her face, lit only by a candle, as her character realizes that Sarah has caught her in bed with the Queen. It made me sit up in an attempt to decipher her expression. Stone has matured as an actor even since her slightly broad performance in 2014’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
There are several sequences in The Favourite that Lanthimos shot completely by candlelight, but the one described above stands out in particular. The inky blackness surrounding Weisz’s face as her character moves down a corridor, planning her next move, is stark and contrasts beautifully with the candlelight. Lanthimos is a master technician, and he and his creative team employ virtuoso camera movements. The various whip-pans and fast dolly shots celebrate the best aspects of motion pictures. The director and his cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, use wildly distorted fish-eye lenses and other unsettling camera perspective tricks – like exaggerated low-angle shots – to keep the audience as disoriented as the story demands.
The Favourite is another stylized, disturbing entry from a singularly unique talent. The comedy is bleak, and at two hours, the nihilism of both the form and content wore me down by the end. Still, such bold vision and execution in storytelling is an exciting thing to behold.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- The Favourite’s visual style, from costumes, to production design, to cinematography, is stunning. If it wasn’t clear before (it was), Lanthimos has set himself apart as a master filmmaker. The nihilistic elements of the story and plot, while wickedly funny, does become overbearing by the end, though.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Critic Josh Larsen mentions in his review of the film that Lanthimos is often compared to Stanley Kubrick, so it’s easy to mark the The Favourite as his Barry Lyndon. I made my own comparison of Lanthimos to Kubrick in my review for The Killing of a Sacred Deer. To my shame, Barry Lyndon remains one of the few Kubrick films I’ve yet to see, so maybe that explains my failure to make the connection. If nothing else, this gives me more reason to seek Lyndon out.
- There is an undercurrent (which often rises right to the top) in The Favourite of class critique and the striking differences in the lives of the haves and have-nots. One example is when Abigail (as a lowly servant) is given lashes for displeasing her employer. Another is the treatment she must endure from a fellow traveler in the coach she takes to meet Sarah. The man begins masturbating in front of her, and grabs her ass as she gets out of the coach, causing her to fall in mud mixed with human feces. That moment contrasts with what almost happens to Sarah late in the film, involving a whorehouse, and how her privilege affords her an escape route. There is the barest hint of this class critique in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but it feels like Lanthimos uses it more for his own enjoyment in the devilish machinations of his stories, rather than any real interest in exploring the unjust circumstances of the lives of the poor.
- An excellent double feature to pair with The Favourite would be All About Eve, which I actually caught up with for the first time just this year. The Favourite is basically All About Eve with more brutal, deadly stakes.
- There is a bizarre, hilarious anachronistic dance sequence in the movie that is pure Yorgos Lanthimos.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- I saw this with a smallish crowd at my local Alamo Drafthouse theater. There were a group of women who really enjoyed it. They laughed throughout.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Director Steve McQueen has made a name for himself with films that feature highly difficult themes and subject matter. His debut, Hunger, tells the true story of a 1981 Irish hunger strike. Shame is about a sex addict, and 12 Years a Slave is an adaptation of a memoir about a black man abducted from the north in 1841 and forced to work as a slave. His new film, Widows, is a heist film and is adapted from an early 80s British TV show. He wrote the screenplay with Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl. It feels like this might be a turning point in McQueen’s career, but I’ll have to wait until I see it to know how grim Widows gets.