Lady Sarah: Love has limits
Queen Anne: It should not
Those unfamiliar with the work of Yorgos Lanthimos may be surprised to hear that The Favourite is the man’s most accessible film to date. A court drama about the shifting power dynamics between three women—Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her long-time confidant Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and new arrival Abigail (Emma Stone)—this feverish portrayal of high society at its lowest states of depravity is an easier pill to swallow than films like Dogtooth and The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Yet Lanthimos does not abandon his stylish, matter-of-fact directorial presence. The Favourite is a brilliantly-composed film just as disturbing and perversely titillating as his earlier work.
One scene in this film might perfectly distill the quality of Lanthimos’ films. It is the scene in which a group of male politicians pelt oranges at another male politician, who dances naked in slow motion while laughing gleefully. It is confounding (what is the intent?) and disturbing (must it be a prolonged, slow-motion scene?), yet it is impossible to look away and somehow seems to make perfect sense in this strange world.
This is Lanthimos’ power as a director. He creates a setting that is both other-worldly yet so believable. This is because he sets out a rule-set for the world that is strictly adhered to, making it so that once you buy into the setting you can buy into the insular drama that is carried out within.
In the case of The Favourite, this insularity is complemented by a camera style that favors the sheer size of the palace in which most of the film takes place. Extreme wide angle lenses capture the length of a hallway, or the height of a bedroom. Everything is claustrophobic, as the estate is this suffocating force on the triad of characters, but it is filmed in a way that dwarfs the characters within the building. It is a paradoxical style that is fascinating and nauseating.
What is more impressive than Lanthimos’ camera is the acting. The three characters are drawn so extraordinarily, and the three primary actors take on the unstated depths of those personalities so effortlessly. Colman, in particular, adds nuances to a character that, in a lesser actor’s hands, would come off batty and trite. What comes out of this layered performance is a character that is a grounded, tragic presence in this darkly comedic film.
How these characters are written defines the audience’s engagement with the film. In a sense, every character in The Favourite is evil. They all connive and play their cards close to the chest, doing whatever they can to maximize their personal power. Even the Queen, who is the closest thing to a sympathetic character we get, lashes out when she feels distress, and it is her ultimate power that permits her these outbursts.
At the same time, there is a reasoning behind each character’s struggle for power. The enjoyment of the film comes in finding these motivations, probing at the wrinkles in the characters, wrinkles that are not always explicitly stated. By the end of the film, there is so much more to unpack that one could mull it over for days after the fact.
This is the first Lanthimos film which he did not co-write (his last four films were co-written with Efthymis Filippou), but the script here meshes with his milieu quite well. There are certain places where the enhanced visual style is too much for the classical setting, but otherwise Lanthimos takes the sharp-as-a-tack script and gives it a space to sing.
The Favourite is bleakly funny. It is somewhat tragic. It is endlessly dynamic. And, as with all Lanthimos films, it is not for everyone. It can be disturbing. It can be queasy. It can feel oppressive. But all of this is purposeful, and it is weaponized in a glorious way. This is all evidenced in the film’s breathless final scene, which is as flooring as it is certain to be divisive.
There is much more that can be said about this film (that score, with the single-note conversation between piano and strings repeating over and over again, is the most haunting sound in a film this year). But mostly I am thinking about when I will get a chance to see this film again, and as far as I’m concerned that is the highest praise I can give.
The Favourite: A-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)