The following is a review of The Favourite — Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.
When I first saw the brilliant-but-beautifully-absurd The Lobster a couple of years ago, I was wildly impressed with this ‘new’ director that I thought I had come upon. That was an extremely assured but absurdist-to-the-bone English-language debut, and he followed it up with The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which is another successful but very odd film. I’ve enjoyed both of these English-language films, so I was, naturally, intrigued by his next inspired and auteurist foray into English-language filmmaking — The Favourite.
The Favourite is the first film in the English language that the Greek auteur has directed but has not received a writing credit for. This ensemble-focused period-piece costume drama — though reportedly historically inaccurate and filled with notable anachronisms — is easily Lanthimos’ most accessible work yet, but I think it is also his most successful work in English.
Lanthimos’ The Favourite is an 18th-century costume drama loosely based on the life of Queen Anne (played by Olivia Colman) and her relationships with Sarah Churchill (played by Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Hill (played by Emma Stone). With Anne being largely disinterested in politics and government, Sarah — Lady Marlborough — had seized the opportunity to effectively rule the nation while it was at war with France.
But when Sarah’s impoverished cousin Abigail comes to beg to be employed by her privileged family-member and then rises through the ranks to become close with the Queen, Sarah realizes her privileged position as the favorite to the Queen is up for grabs, while alliances are made, secrets are kept, and wounds are treated in this brilliant and humorous dark love triangle.
In the late 1990s, co-writer Deborah Davis wrote her original screenplay The Balance of Power, which, over the course of the last two decades, was sharpened and changed with the helping hand of co-writer Tony McNamara and others to become what we now know as The Favourite. Though Lanthimos did not receive a writing credit, he insists that he worked hard on the script for a long time.
It definitely feels like a Lanthimos film through and through, but one of the reasons why this film also feels like a step in another direction is due to the lack of Lanthimos’ trademark deadpan delivery of dialogue. The dialogue here is still decidedly unlike your average costume drama, though, and the humor which becomes darker and darker is right up Lanthimos’ alley.
In spite of the deadpan delivery that he got out of actors in both The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos always got deeply fascinating performances out of his actors, and with The Favourite he tops his best English-language work with three or four brilliant performances some of which may be career-bests.
Before I discuss the performances delivered by the three leading women who are rightfully up for multiple awards at many different ceremonies, I want to mention the one performance that surprised me exactly because I had heard very few single the actor out for praise beforehand, and that actor’s name is Nicholas Hoult. Whereas the three main female characters are all complex and decidedly human, the men here are pretty, dry, and fairly one-note, but Hoult is given the juiciest male character and watching him try to domineer those who will eventually usurp him in influence is wickedly fun.
This is a perfect ensemble cast film. Though the distributor has designated Olivia Colman as the lead actress, I think the three female characters are of equal weight in the narrative. There are no leads in The Favourite and that is a good thing for what starts as a humorous period piece and, all of a sudden, starts its transformation into a devilishly dark comedy with backstabbings, power struggles, and cruel attempts to manipulate politics by pulling the strings of the Queen who has no knowledge of her country’s affairs and is too bad-tempered to appear regal in public.
This could’ve been a fairly unpleasant one-note character to follow, but the always-brilliant Olivia Colman makes her not just sympathetic but a deeply tragic figure that you care for. She gets to play many different sides of the character — bad-tempered, silly and unknowing, pained by her past and her gout, delighted by being at the center of a battle to be her favorite, but also as a loving and caring character worn out by her tough life as a mother of seventeen lost children. Also, Colman has always been an underappreciated comedienne, but she made me belly-laugh with her character’s exaggerated embarrassed temper-tantrums. I’m not sure anyone else could’ve played Queen Anne quite as brilliantly as Colman.
I am equally impressed by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, the latter of whom may have rivaled or topped her best performances. Like with Colman, I have a tough time imagining anyone else could play this character as pitch-perfect as Weisz does here, even though, I’ve found out, both Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett were considered for and offered the part. Weisz’s character is strong and honest and thus at odds with how Stone’s character acts in front of the Queen, but you also do sense the love that she has for her childhood friend — the Queen — even though it is clear her main motivation is the potential for power and influence.
Stone overcomes challenging accent-work with ease. Though I’m sure those with the best ears for English accents will find fault here or there, her accent is never distracting or jarring. Stone also seems to have so much fun with her character, who takes every chance she sees to rise through the ranks and become the lady she thinks she was born to be. Stone becomes deliciously manipulative but starts as a seemingly caring character who has potential for, as she says and realizes later on, ‘much unpleasantness.’
One thing that is easy to get hung up on is the idea that a period-piece costume drama should have a fairly accurate narrative with period-appropriate costumes, dialogue and so on and so forth. What becomes fairly clear in The Favourite, though, is that while Sandy Powell’s costumes are lavishly designed and the set designs are glorious, Lanthimos clearly cares more about the character drama than the politics of the day.
It isn’t quite a chamber-piece, but you barely see the characters leave the first location you get to see. Though you get surface-level comments about the war with France, the political drama plays second fiddle to the film’s ultimate focus on the love triangle, the power struggle, and the one proverb that, in my reading of the film, best sums up the film: “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
I also want to mention how stunning but still distinctive the film looks. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan and director Yorgos Lanthimos make use of these wide-angle lenses that have this fish-eye lense-like effect. It’s quite jarring, at first, but, eventually, you do get used to it. There is also a fascination with dissolves especially in the very last scene, which I thought was very interesting. I’ve already mentioned the costumes and the location, but I do also want to mention that Ryan and Lanthimos’ have successfully made this film look so alive with the film’s sumptuous images.
There are two things that I didn’t initially respond well to about the film, though. With both The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and now The Favourite, I’ve thought the film runs a bit too long. It is a minor criticism this time, though, because since I saw it a couple of days ago, I’ve thought about how I wish we had had even more time with the characters. So that may not be as big of a problem as I initially thought it was.
But I do have a problem with the final scene of the film. Though I’ll try not to spoil it, I will say that I thought the film went too far in trying to color our reading of one of the three characters. One of the three female characters does something unnecessarily cruel, and I think it is an example of a scene where Lanthimos tried to overcorrect a presumed reading of one character’s nature.
Initially, it seemed like Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite was a step outside the director’s comfort zone, but the actual film reveals another truth entirely — he fits right in. This might be his best work yet thanks in some part to a terrific screenplay that juggles multiple story angles and tones while still holding its riveting narrative core — a power struggle disguised as a love triangle. Lanthimos’ third English-language film is auteur filmmaking at its finest and a true acting showcase. It is sure to get an emotional response out of you, and it is rightfully likely to be remembered as one of the most critically celebrated films of 2018.
9.5 out of 10
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.