The Favourite marks another shift in pace for Yorgos Lanthimos, but it’s still one that feels every bit as absurd as one you would expect for him. But his style had always been an acquired taste and I’ve never exactly found it easy to get into his work, but the case with The Favourite is something else entirely. This is the sort of film that feels perfect for the sort of style that Yorgos Lanthimos has been known for over the years, for every moment of it that carries his distinctively dark sense of humour also finds itself in a perfect spot, by making fun of the monarchy – for their interactions only ever feel every bit as stinted and as awkward as one would ever expect them to be, trying to cope with how much power they have over the worlds in which they control. But The Favourite also may be a fitting enough title when talking about what Yorgos Lanthimos has accomplished here, for not only might it be my favourite of his filmography but it’s also the hardest that I’ve ever found myself laughing during a comedy in so long.
Olivia Colman stars as the frail Queen Anne amidst Great Britain’s war with the French, and together with her at the throne is her adviser and secret lover Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), otherwise known as Lady Marlborough. Everything seems to be perfectly in order up until the arrival of Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), who takes the Queen’s interest to becoming her own favourite. As a result, Sarah’s jealousy only finds itself increasing as she seeks to find a way to climb back into the Queen’s favour, no matter how humiliating or dangerous the outcome can turn into. It’s a familiar dynamic that The Favourite is playing around with, but given the setting in which Yorgos Lanthimos is working around, it also feels like a perfect summary of the current state of world politics – among many reasons it still feels so perfectly biting today. Fittingly enough, the film tells a story of a competition of the pettiest between two different women, representing two different classes in society, perhaps best representative of the direction to which the world turns into even amidst a crisis – if there’s ever any other way to describe what it is that is best captured by The Favourite.
This also may arguably be Yorgos Lanthimos at his most playful yet, especially since it’s more a comedy of manners that contrasts his usually robotic style of writing. But that contrast doesn’t only feel more tangible to a greater extent compared to Lanthimos’s past two English-language efforts, it also makes for an incredibly funny film altogether. Yet even Lanthimos’s distinctive coldness even finds itself most perfectly into place with The Favourite. It feels like the perfect tone to lampoon the sort of people that the film is about, but Lanthimos is also aware of what it is that makes such people act the way in which they do. He’s created a perfect playground for all three of his leads to be themselves as much as they possibly can within the 18th century England setting. Yet in this playground he’s created for the trio of leading women here, what The Favourite establishes is also something revealing too – allowing a darker side to be more present too, and creating an emotionally affecting work in the process.
I’ve never seen a script that feels so tightly woven together all year in that same sense Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s has for The Favourite, for not only is every exchange of dialogue so perfect – but there’s also a sense of brokenness that every character is clearly trying to overcome that highlights a greater tragedy, one that spreads far beyond the upper class whose story The Favourite tells of. Olivia Colman’s portrayal of Queen Anne feels so overwhelmed even by her own power to the point she seems to feel so lost in a tragic sense, too. But the manner in which she shifts between being one of the film’s most entertaining characters to one of the most tragic aspects of The Favourite is absolutely stunning – there’s always a scene-stealing moment whenever she shows up.
Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, respectively as the Queen’s advisor Sarah Churchill and her lower-class cousin Abigail Hill, also capture a perfect rivalry in their own pettiness to try and earn the favour of Anne. But in how self-absorbed both characters are, what Yorgos Lanthimos makes of the behind-the-scenes politics to become the court favourite also shows a more tragic side to both characters. From her introduction to the screen, Emma Stone’s Abigail Hill is shown to be more sympathetic, yet she grows to embrace an ugliness that hanging around the queen would have turned her into. Emma Stone’s performance is absolutely wonderful, especially in how she captures the anger of being trapped within the queen’s realm. But Weisz, as the secret lover of Queen Anne also isn’t invulnerable to her own absorption – for she would do anything in her own power to remain her lover. Yet no matter who wins at the end, it all came at the cost of breaking one’s own essence too.
Without a doubt, this is also Yorgos Lanthimos’s most beautiful film – from all the strange wide angle shots to the elegant costume design, or even the lighting in the darker moments too. But even that beauty can only attract the eyes to a degree where it can only fool you into thinking that it’s all beautiful. Perhaps it isn’t unfamiliar to films like this, but what Yorgos Lanthimos has crafted with The Favourite is also something that also feels so incredibly revealing in its own playfulness. He embraces that femininity as much as he does the darkness of what being trapped in a monarchy can do to oneself, creating both one of the funniest comedies in recent memory and one of the darkest cinematic tragedies of recent memory. This is a film all about power, and its effects on humanity from the absurd to the depressing. Lanthimos has only been working to perfect this over the years, but The Favourite is perhaps the best example of where all of this ever fits so perfectly in place. If Yorgos Lanthimos ever manages to top this, I’ll be stunned.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Fox Searchlight.
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenplay by Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Produced by Ceci Dempsey, Ed Guiney, Lee Magiday, Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn
Release Date: November 23, 2018
Running Time: 120 minutes