Synopsis – In the early 18th century, an impoverished aristocrat (Emma Stone) schemes her way into favour with Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), embarking on a collision course with the Queen’s current favourite Sarah (Rachel Weisz), Duchess of Marlborough and the real power behind the throne.
1. Ordinarily, it takes a while for a filmmaker’s name to become an adjective (e.g. Kubrickian, Tarantinesque), but Yorgos Lanthimos has done it in record time. Lanthimosian, as a descriptor, refers to a sort of deadpan surrealism, with characters unemotionally reciting their lines amidst ridiculous situations while being filmed from odd angles with a drab colour palette. In that regard, The Favourite is Lanthimos’s least Lanthimosian film (which makes it his most mainstream-friendly work), with its lush backgrounds, realistic plot, and emotive acting. Perhaps it’s because The Favourite is the first Lanthimos film to be scripted by someone else, or that it is based on true historical events and not conjured out of whole cloth. Whatever the case, The Favourite stands as another winner from Lanthimos, a beautiful candy confectionery with a bittersweet poison centre.
2. A word on costuming. One of the (many) annoying trends in the Oscars is to give period dramas the costume awards because (s)lavish fidelity = quality, apparently. If, however, The Favourite were to win any award on costuming, it would be richly deserved. There is just so much to admire about the costume design, from the high-contrast monochromatic colour scheme to the way that each character’s clothing says so much about them, be it the armoured masculinity of Lady Marlborough’s riding gear or the foppish puffery of the dandies that make up Parliament. Costume design should not simply be about beauty or accuracy for its own sake, but serve as a vital part of storytelling, and The Favourite succeeds in spades.
3. The fact that The Favourite is the least Lanthimosian film of the director’s does not mean that his usual craftsmanship is absent in any way. Each shot is spectacularly composed and choreographed without ever falling into the trap of stuffiness that plague so many period pieces, thanks to how consistently skewed the perspective on display is. Sometimes this perspective reveals itself in size, with characters either dwarfed by the opulence of their surroundings or extreme close-ups that completely fill the frame. Sometimes this perspective reveals itself through shot selection, particularly in the alienating use of the fish-eye lens. And one time this perspective reveals itself through a fat bewigged naked man cupping his genitals while other bewigged men throw oranges at him. Downton Abbey this is not.
4. Speaking of which, how thoroughly refreshing to watch a period piece that does not suck up to the upper crust in any way. There is no class envy here whatsoever – these are terrible, immoral people in a terrible, immoral system, and it never feels like Lanthimos is sighing dewey-eyed at ‘how wonderful things used to be’, which is a lot more than I can say for some other filmmakers, whom I will not name.*
5. Also refreshing – a film of this nature that, rather than avoiding the homoerotic implications of the relationships, chooses to lean in all the way instead. There are reams of essays that could be written about the sexual politics of The Favourite – the feminised men, the powerful women, the homoeroticism, the use of sex and favour as weapons, and so on.
6. The acting in this film is uniformly spectacular, and it is impossible to play favourites (pun!) with the central trio. Emma Stone cannily subverts her ‘charming earnest girl-next-door’ persona, transforming her expressive face into a terrifying weapon as the scheming Abigail. It is a magnificent performance that manages to always convey two ideas – Abigail’s facade of sweet guilelessness and the unbounded ambition that lies within.** In contrast to Stone’s fire, Rachel Weisz is all ice as the flinty, sardonic Lady Marlborough. Weisz gets most of the best zingers in the film, and she delivers them with a chilly relish. Like Stone, Weisz succeeds masterfully at showing both sides of a complicated character, portraying Lady Marlborough’s ruthless public persona and the complex, wounded, even loving person within. And last, but certainly not least, Olivia Colman delivers a fucking towering performance as the childish, temperamental, mentally-addled Queen Anne, turning the monarch into a figure of pity against all odds. Colman gives us a queen who is equal parts spoilt brat and tragic figure, and is believable both as a woman who has lost seventeen children and one who wishes to race lobsters. And yet, as good as the three central performances are alone, together they are perfection. It is magnificent alchemy, and kudos must go to the three actors, Lanthimos, and whoever figured out the casting.
7. This is hardly a perfect film, though. I’ve always had issues with Lanthimos’s pacing – he seems to be much better at world-building and setting up his bizarre, off-kilter scenarios than following through on plot. I always describe The Lobster (still his finest work) as half a perfect movie and half a very good one,*** and like that film, the best moments in The Favourite are the scenes where the plot plays second fiddle to the setting and the situation. If I were to hazard a guess on why, I would say that Lanthimos’s languid pacing is absolutely perfect in letting situations play themselves to the hilt, but not so great in terms of resolving plot threads – there is a section near the end where Queen Anne asks about the mail that comes close to being interminable.
8. Pacing issues aside, The Favourite is another unique and wonderful work from the twisted sensibilities of Yorgos Lanthimos. Spectacular performances, gorgeous costuming, a wicked sense of humour and impeccable craftsmanship**** elevate this film far past the usual awards-bait historical drama. While it may be the least unique of his films, this arguably makes it a fantastic entry point for anyone who might be interested in checking out the filmography of one of the most interesting and thought-provoking filmmakers working today.
Plus, there are bunnies. Lots and lots of bunnies. And sometimes, isn’t that just reason enough?
*No, of course I am naming them. Off the top of my head, here are the most egregious in the ‘dude, these people deserve the guillotine and not your sympathy’ list. Baz Lurhmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, the entire oeuvre of Tom Hooper, the filmography of Joe Wright, and yes, most of Wes Anderson’s films. I’ll fight anyone on that last one.
**Also, extra points for a nearly note-perfect British accent.
*** The first half of The Lobster is in my top five favourite films of the decade. As a whole, it probably falls somewhere in the top thirty.
****Omigod I can’t believe I forgot to mention that it was filmed using natural light seriously it looks STUNNING.