Cast: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Running time: 2 hours
by Jericho Cerrona
No one is ever going to accuse Yorgos Lanthimos of selling out and going Hollywood, but his latest effort, The Favourite, is probably the closest he’s ever come to making a crowd-pleaser. With a streamlined script from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, the Greek auteur’s penchant for meandering storytelling (as seen in films like Dogtooth and The Lobster) has been reigned in, though he certainly doesn’t skimp on the arty flourishes. With flashes of anachronistic costuming, foul-mouthed dialogue, and comedic detours, The Favourite is mostly an off-beat lark, though what’s most surprising here is just how much Lanthimos actually shows empathy for his characters.
Taking place in the early 18th century, the film follows the gout-infested, childish Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her closest friend and secret lover, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), who has survived multiple horrors in order to arrive at Kensington Palace seeking employment. Upon learning of the Queen and Sarah’s clandestine romantic relationship, Abigail hatches a scheme to seduce the Queen as a power move to climb up the royal ranks. What follows is a lively, if surprisingly straightforward (for Lanthimos), three-way costume/character drama. There are elements of Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship in the modernized banter, and even Albert Serra’s tragicomic The Life and Death of Louis XIV in the depiction of silly wigs and deteriorating bodies. However, Lanthimos doesn’t completely trust the screenplay’s subversive streak and occasionally gets in his own way; using a variety of low-angle camera placements, fish eye lenses, and showy whip pans.
The aesthetic garishness of The Favourite is only mildly annoying, seeing as how the film really exists as a showcase for three sublime performances. Colman pouts, whines, and acts like a spoiled child, but there’s a heartbreaking sense of arrested development as we learn little snippets of her past; including why she keeps 17 caged rabbits in her bedroom. A scene where she gorges on cake in between bouts of inconsolable tears is both disturbing and funny, which is exactly the tone Colman strikes throughout. Weisz, meanwhile, probably has the film’s most deliciously mean-spirited dialogue, and she delivers it with swaggering confidence that we later learn is somewhat of a mask for the genuine feelings she has for the queen. Stone uses the familiarity audiences have with her screen presence to disarming effect as she plots, schemes, and undergoes the movie’s most satisfying character arc. Nicholas Hoult’s supporting turn as young minister Robert Harley is also worth noting as the lone male figure with prominent screen time; a powdered dandy with power who underestimates all three women and becomes, in a nice gender reversal, something of an emasculated pawn.
The Favourite features a twisted love triangle which also happens to include a waging war with France, increased taxes, and broader issues lurking just outside the confines of the royal court. Lanthimos seems most interested in the private tug-of-war between the three women, which includes a “sex positive” queerness angle which plays refreshingly matter-of-factly, but after an intriguing buildup, the film refuses to push into unexpected territory during the third act. Perhaps it’s a compliment that Lanthimos doesn’t embrace his inner weirdness as an alienating construct like much of his past work, but instead, trusts his actors to provide most of the engagement. However, just when you think he may be going for softball ending, the final shot refracts everything we’ve seen into a nightmarish hall of mirrors; reinforcing the notion that when it comes to power, human beings really are grotesque animals.