The Favourite - bizarre but utterly distinct
For some, all I need to say is that The Favourite is directed by Yanos Lanthimos who brought us The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. You know you are dealing with a Marmite film.
Set during the early 18th century, during the reign of Anne, Queen of Great Britain (portrayed here by Olivia Colman), the film focuses on the close relationship between Anne and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). While Sarah is the only person who can speak bluntly with the Queen, that’s about to change upon the arrival of Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone). With ambitions to rise in status, a rivalry forms between Sarah and Abigail, leading to many consequences on all sides.
Looking at the basic outline of this plot, it would be easy to see The Favourite as a commentary on class-based societies, and what pressure there is to ascend to the top. Developing a scathing critique on what the rich can accomplish, while those below them suffer, is familiar enough territory that’s been explored plenty. There’s also the nature of how to maintain a high level of status, once at a comfortable position in one’s life. Depicting this sort of prominence as one supported by toothpicks means having a chance to see it all come crumbling down so quickly. Working to The Favourite’s advantage is that the film is a comedy.
While this is the first film where Lanthimos is not credited as the screenwriter as well, it is easy to see how this story could attract him, allowing for ways to build off its unique structure and tone. The camera-work by DOP Robbie Ryan (a fellow Dubliner) is wonderful but sometimes jarring as he makes use of various lenses to capture some scenes.
People are horrible to each other in this film, but given the time and place, there is a lot of darkly-tinged comedy to mine from seeing the wealthy aristocracy mess with each other. Scenes of great debate or lavish parties take on an extra level thanks to the hysterical deliveries of witty barbs and tension-filled actions (such as a bizarre dance sequence loaded with implications). The Favourite may not be an all-out parody on the level of great Monty Python skits, but one can easily bring these thoughts to mind when seeing characters converse while covered in mud.
At the centre of this film are the three key performances, all deserving praise. It takes a level of precision to align with Lanthimos’ sensibilities properly, and each performer hits where necessary. Weisz has proven to know how to balance a sense of humour with calculating menace, which is well-suited to her here. Stone capitalizes on a chance to spin around her typical persona for the sake of portraying a cunning survivor. Colman has, perhaps, the trickiest part. Queen Anne must be intimidating, aloof, and sympathetic, all while committing to a level of silliness that speaks for how others see her. The dynamics between these three never fails to be interesting thanks to what their goals are. For Anne, it comes to respect and attention. For Abigail, it is about not wanting to let go of privilege. For Sarah, it’s power and opportunity. The ways these different goals clash is what also allows the film to resonate as more than just a comedy. This is particularly the case as we watch Sarah go down in favour with Anne. Seeing a character as not only one who knows how to play the game of thrones, but understands the real politics of it all, means watching a depiction of how history essentially changed due to personal squabbles.
Like all Lanthimis films, the ending may leave you scratching your head. It's certainly his most accessible work to date but still divide audiences.