The Favourite (2018)
Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
Premise: In 18th Century England, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is cared for by Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). The duchess’ cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) comes to court looking for employment and jockeys for the queen’s favor.
What Works: Stories about royalty and courtly intrigue have long been a staple of moviemaking but it’s difficult to imagine anything quite like The Favourite. This movie explodes all of the ideas about what a period piece ought to be, particularly the stiffness and propriety that so often characterizes these films. The Favourite retains the outward appearance of a courtly drama but this film is not nice nor is it proper. The Favourite has unusual cinematography; the filmmakers use fish-eye lenses that capture the height and width of very tall rooms and the movement through the frame is sometimes distorted. This creates a feeling of unease as does the sparse music score. The Favourite dramatizes the pursuit of power and the fickle nature of political allegiances. Queen Anne is a monarch with only a fleeting grasp of state affairs; she spends most of her time isolated and tending to her pet rabbits or recuperating from bouts with gout. She relies on Sarah Churchill to advise her on all things and the Duchess of Marlborough effectively runs the country. But when the duchess’s cousin Abigail Hill turns up, the two women vie for the queen’s ear and the film is a series of machinations as the women maneuver to place themselves at Queen Anne’s side. The Favourite is wickedly funny and very smart. The plotting is quite good with these women finding ways to outmaneuver each other and the dialogue is sharp. It has the formal syntax we expect from a period piece but it’s also witty and vulgar. The film does an excellent job of connecting the past with the present; these characters feel alive and contemporary but not in a way that is anachronistic. The three leads of The Favourite are extraordinary. Olivia Colman is cast as Queen Anne and Colman turns it up to eleven when necessary but she also has quiet and dramatic moments that capture the loneliness of a national leader. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are also terrific as rivals. Weisz and Stone are rarely outwardly antagonistic and they play the subtext in ways that make their tensions clear to the audience. This is a film about power but it’s also specifically about power in the hands of women and the extent to which people compromise themselves in pursuit of position or the illusion of it. What The Favourite has to show us about power and the human appetite for it is applicable to power struggles at all levels, from domestic situations to national affairs.
What Doesn’t: Filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos has an offbeat sensibility. Of his films, which include The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Favourite is probably his most accessible film. It remains within realistic circumstances and its themes aren’t as cerebral as some of his other work. That said, The Favourite is still very much a Yorgos Lanthimos movie. It is eccentric and lewd in places and not necessarily to everyone’s taste. It’s certainly not for the Downton Abbey crowd.
Bottom Line: The Favourite is an extraordinary film. It is unusual and viewers expecting the average British monarchy drama might be put off by the picture. But this is a terrifically crafted and performed farce that offers a lot to reflect on once it’s over.
Episode: #733 (January 13, 2019)