Armed with Lanthimos’ trademark weirdness and three great lead performances, The Favourite is a truly unique spin on the typical royal court drama.
Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos has been making sardonic, idiosyncratic, and otherwise, well, strange movies since the early 2000s, but it wasn’t until 2015’s dystopian “love story” The Lobster that he became a proper awards season contender. Lanthimos is back in the Oscar race this year with The Favourite, a film that takes a very awards season-friendly genre (the royal court drama) and gives it a decidedly Lanthimosian makeover, for lack of a better description. The movie has already been honored with the top prizes at events like the Venice International Film Festival and is poised to keep its winning streak going from here… and with fair reason. Armed with Lanthimos’ trademark weirdness and three great lead performances, The Favourite is a truly unique spin on the typical royal court drama.
The Favourite goes back in time to the early 18th century, where England is at war with France and Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) sits on the throne. Anne, who is incredibly frail both physically and mentally, relies heavily on her confidant Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), Duchess of Marlborough, to essentially run the country and oversee the war effort, even as members of her court – namely, Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), the 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer – attempt to undermine Sarah’s rulings. Enter Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), Sarah’s cousin who lost her noble stature years ago due to her father’s gambling, and has made her way to Anne’s palace, in the hope of securing a position.
After some early stumbles, Abigail manages to impress Sarah and her standing (and living conditions) improve significantly for it. Abigail thereafter begins to make a bid to win the Queen’s favor, especially after she learns just how intimate Sarah and Anne’s relationship really is. However, this also puts her in direct conflict with Sarah’s interests – and when Sarah becomes wise to Abigail’s scheming, the pair find themselves in a fierce competition to become the Queen’s true favorite… one that definitely won’t end happily for the loser.
The Favourite cowriter Deborah Davis set to work on the film’s screenplay as far back as the late 1990s, before producer Ceci Dempsey (who also worked on The Lobster), screenwriter Tony McNarma (Ashby), and Lanthimos got involved. In its final movie form, the project makes for a fascinating combination of bleak (and occasionally downright bizarre) comedy and political satire, with its exploration of the intrigues and machinations of Queen Anne’s royal court. At the heart of all the madness is the love triangle between Anne, Sarah, and Abigail – a dynamic that’s equal parts funny, peculiar, and surprisingly touching in its own ways. Indeed, by examining their relationship under a microscope, The Favourite is able to offer a study of the politics of sex and love that thematically compliments Lanthimos’ work on The Lobster and its own observations about power dynamics and how twisted human relationships can seem, from a certain point of view.
Lanthimos’ films certainly tell their stories “from a certain point of view” and that comes through loud and clear in The Favourite. The movie is as beautifully off-kilter visually as it is narratively, thanks to the cinematography by DP Robbie Ryan (The Meyerowitz Stories) and its heavy use of unsettling fisheye lenses, dancing tracking shots, and equally skewed, yet stylish, wide-angle shot compositions. As a result, The Favourite simply looks as unhinged and quirky at it story feels, even when nothing particularly unusual is happening… which, to be fair, isn’t very often. Even if Lanthimos hadn’t shot the film in this fashion, The Favourite would still be gorgeous to look at, thanks to the exquisitely detailed sets and production design by Fiona Crombie (who did equally great work on 2015’s Macbeth retelling), and the evocative royal garbs by costume designer Sandy Powell (who, between this and Mary Poppins Returns, has really outdone herself this year alone). Still, the unconventional photography adds the right touch of curiosity to the proceedings.
Admittedly, though, The Favourite might have come off as all brains and style with no heart were it not for the terrific work by Colman, Weisz, and Stone. While the former two have collaborated with Lanthimos before (namely, on The Lobster), this film gives them a chance to shine in new ways as Anne and Sarah – characters who can go from petulant, vicious, and cruel to playful, sincere, and/or vulnerable within the blink of an eye – and the pair very much rise to the occasion. The same goes for Stone, who’s excelled at balancing comedy and drama before, but has never gotten to play a character who’s quite as darkly funny, guileful, and on the whole messy as Abigail. The Favourite is Colman, Weisz, and Stone’s show above all else, but Hoult still manages to leave his mark as the slippery Earl Harley; a character who would gladly stab you in the back, if he felt it served his purposes. The same goes for Joe Alwyn in his scenes as Samuel Masham, a member of Anne’s court who gets in way over his head when he decides to pursue Abigail.
Keeping all that in mind, though, it’s worth mentioning that (at the end of the day) The Favourite is very much a Lanthimos film is ways both good and, well, less so. As impressive as the movie’s craftsmanship and performances are, its director’s approach to storytelling and morose sense of humor aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea – and because his methods serve The Favourite quite well as a whole, it makes the moments where his approach doesn’t work stand out all the more, by comparison. This film is arguably one of Lanthimos’ more accessible offerings to date (certainly more so than, say, last year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer), but it’s also in keeping with his previous efforts behind the camera and may leave some moviegoers feeling understandably cold and frustrated for it (even those who are fascinated by the story at the heart of the film). For these reasons, it’s difficult to recommend The Favourite to everyone, without some caveats.
Those who loved Lanthimos’ previous films, on the other hand, will definitely want to give The Favourite a look in theaters (no asterisks necessary), as will those who want to keep up with year’s awards season frontrunners. Likewise, those who have been waiting for an Oscar-friendly period piece that really puts its leading ladies at the forefront – and/or isn’t afraid of messing with the genre’s formula in weird and comically off-putting ways – may find what they’ve been searching for here. Either way you cut it, The Favourite really is unlike anything else that’s playing in theaters right now (or will be arriving before 2018 draws to a close).
The Favourite is now playing in select U.S. theaters and will expand to additional markets over the forthcoming weeks. It is 121 minutes long and is rated R for strong sexual content, nudity and language.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments section!