Boasting dramatic performances rivaling that of the most powdered royal courtiers and with trademark off-kilter humor, The Favourite cements “Lanthimos Style” in the filmmakers’ lexicon.
Never heard of Lanthimos Style? Well, I made it up, but rest assured, like Scorsese or Wes Anderson, Yorgos Lanthimos’ uniquely biting humor and off-color sensibilities will soon be the aspiration of edgy film school students everywhere. Slowly chiseling a path through opaque obscurity with films like Dogtooth and The Lobster, Lanthimos has made it through the tunnel into the crystal waters of celebrity largely without tempering his style or his subject matter. The Favourite, arguably his biggest mainstream hit yet, is no less authentic.
The Favourite slides methodically through an isolated period during the reign of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) in 18th century England, specifically busying itself with the relationship between the queen, her childhood friend and overbearing closest advisor, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and the cunning, scrappy upstart come to secure her fortune and her future, Abigail (Emma Stone). On the surface a rise and fall story, with the queen as the constant in the center, The Favourite loosens the reins, letting its three leads showcase their talents. The film is stuffed full of sharp-witted, darkly funny dialogue that the three deliver with the casual sharpness of a papercut, unexpectedly deep and painful. But around these performances Lanthimos sprinkles in a strong supporting cast (especially Nicholas Hoult, dripping bitchy sass with every line) and heaps of connective threads knotted firmly to the politics of today. Even for the biggest Lanthimos skeptics not firmly on board with his unique tone and narrative quirks, this film ensnares solely based on the total strength of its characters.
Olivia Colman is absolutely astounding as Queen Anne. Her range is impressively complete and thoroughly encompassing, convincingly showing the multi-faced personality of the queen, never letting her fall into easy characterization or caricature. Anne was a complex figure, and while some of her personality is probably exaggerated (the lesbianism is a source of debate), the source of a lot of her probable idiosyncrasies, namely the loss of 17 children over the course of her lifetime, is not. A lot of Colman’s choices seem to be, rightly, informed by this trauma, and, where she can be meek and servile to Lady Sarah, monarchically severe to an unsuspecting doorman, or coy and playful with Abigail, it is during her most vulnerable moments, when her spirit-crushing memories roll back in the reflection of her eyes, that we can’t help but feel for her. That’s how good Colman is.
Firmly planted, grasping each of Anne’s arms in brutal tug-of-war stand Lady Sarah and Abigail. Both women pulled towards power for different reasons, but each willing to get as dirty as required to keep their hold on it. Sarah has been with the queen since childhood, knows her intimately, and, perhaps best. She can say what no one else dares, and frequently does, adopting a severe, chiding tone with Anne, often using her as a personal mouthpiece, dictating policy from her side. Sarah is queen in all but name. Using Anne for her own ends, she demonstrates no affection unless it suits her, she is never less than commanding unless servility is required to reign in the queen during infrequent bouts of boldness. Its deplorable behavior, and we, the audience, can hardly wait when Abigail enters to shake this insensitive puppet master from her pedestal. Sarah is the “fall” part of the rise and fall story.
On the other end of the power seesaw is Abigail, a young woman whose father literally lost her in a card game to a perverted old lord. With a graceless upbringing, she learns to be the survivor, taking it on the chin as the expression goes. A lady of station reduced to the level of peasant cannot be proud. She seems humble and grateful for any opportunity given her, but that doesn’t last. Hungry for power as a means of security, she quickly builds a base of allies and buffers herself from harm, adeptly using politics, court society, and Queen Anne’s own affections to her benefit. Her station returned, her true behavior materializes with it, especially in the way she treats those beneath her...poor bunny. And once again our allegiances change.
Lanthimos manipulates our natural inclination to support the underdog. Both women hit highs and lows, and our support shifts accordingly, but neither one is a good person, neither completely deserving of our backing. Perhaps the one caught in the middle, driven slightly mad with grief, lack of confidence, and subtle emotional abuse is the best vessel for our sympathies. But when you think of the present-day contexts, even that makes us uncomfortable. Who do we know whose fickle personality shifts so jarringly, calm and subdued one moment, blisteringly angry and insulting the next? Who surrounds themselves with sycophants, grubby rats clinging to power, doled out to each of them according to the level of flattery they can shamelessly serve? Who leaves questions of politics to said sycophants, preferring instead diversions over duty? Who eats copious amounts of junk food despite an advanced age and clear health detriment? Perhaps these are coincidences, and The Favourite can be enjoyed simply as a darkly comic period piece without trying to inject deconstructive Rorschach readings worthy of a freshman art major into a piece that has none. I leave that to your judgement.
Despite a thoughtful pace and off-kilter tone and characterization that may still prove too weird for typical movie-goers, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is a rich, funny, crisply written film housing three powerful performances and layered with unnerving subtextual themes. It’s a wonder the film doesn’t burst trying to hold it all in.