If the surrealism of Dogtooth, the biting satire of the modern romance in The Lobster, or the horrific tragicomedy of The Killing of a Sacred Deerweren’t sufficient evidence that Yorgos Lanthimos was a talent to watch, The Favourite certainly cements it. With his latest feature the Greek director steps into the period piece, a subgenre that has almost become synonymous with “Oscar bait”. One might think Lanthimos is simply chasing awards with this venture (racking up ten Academy Award nominations) but the pure eccentricity on display here is befitting of one of the most unique voices working in cinema today. Breathing some much-needed life into an increasingly stale genre, The Favourite redefines historical period drama.
It’s early 18th century England: Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is of poor health and is less interested in dealing with the ongoing war with France than throwing childlike tantrums and passing on the political duties of her job to her dear friend Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Through their loving relationship, she has mostly managed to push her own political efforts with the Queen as her conduit; that all changes with the arrival of Lady Marlborough’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), who quickly becomes a threat to Sarah’s position as Anne’s “favourite.” What follows is what could only be described as the complex power struggle of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Threadwith the visual bravado of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, and even that comparison fails to truly describe the sheer absurdity of the two hours that make up The Favourite.
In a change of pace following The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos finds himself passing on writing duties and working from a long-developed script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. Lanthimos has had great success as a writer (he earned another Oscar nomination for his work on The Lobster with co-writer Efthimis Filippou), but even without an official writing credit, his absence isn’t felt here whatsoever. Davis and McNamara’s script certainly feels Lanthimos-esque in its darkly hilarious banter and cynical outlook, brilliantly crafting a complex character dynamic that will have viewers constantly shifting opinions on these characters with every tactical move.
Likewise, it’s refreshing to see this complexity applied to female (and queer!) characters, while the male characters take up mostly ancillary, inconsequential roles – though Nicholas Hoult’s Robert Harley is a hoot. Colman is equal parts pitiful and achingly emotional as Queen Anne, while Stone and Weisz each give their characters layered personalities that soon emerge from under their cheery and stern exteriors, respectively.
Lanthimos, then, is given free rein to focus more on the technical aspects of his directorial duties, which are of utmost importance in a period piece. In continuing the comparison to Barry Lyndon, The Favourite is an absolutely stunning piece of film, making wonderful use of natural lighting that ranges from ethereal sunlight on the firing range to the golden warmth of candlelight in a dark chamber. Sandy Powell’s monochromatic costumes are lavish, as is the gorgeous production design that captures 18th century England. But even The Favourite’s historical approach isn’t free from Lanthimos’ unnerving visual tendencies: the camera often glides around in a not-quite-Steadicam manner, and the recurring use of the wide, fisheye lens lends a sort of eerie, imprisoning feeling to the Queen’s palace.
All this is done not just for stylistic effect. Our main characters are indeed trapped, each in their own way beyond the physical confines of the palace: Anne is not only emotionally trapped in a political position she’s uninterested in, but also physically bound to wheelchairs and beds as her condition worsens; Sarah’s political aspirations are barred behind a Queen she often has to tend to like a child; and Abigail is desperately seeking a new path, one that leads anywhere but the unfair hand she’s been dealt. Though it would be a shame to ruin the sheer insanity of what transpires, anyone who’s familiar with Lanthimos’ narrative sensibilities will certainly foresee the haunting finale it builds to.
Perhaps The Favourite is Lanthimos’ most accessible film, as many have touted it – it’s certainly less high concept than the likes of The Lobster, for instance – but still, it’s an odd, tragic film that won’t click with everyone. Those in tune with Lanthimos’ style, though, will surely find the film to be one of the finest period dramas in some time.
Review: The Favourite
Yorgos Lanthimos shakes up the historical period drama with The Favourite, a darkly hilarious character study led by three amazing lead performances.