Class Act: A Review of The Favourite
In the past few years, Yorgos Lanthimos has made a name for himself as an auteur. His films dwell in the realm of the absurd, layering distinct and matter-of-fact dialogue over ridiculous scenarios. The Lobster, Lanthimos’ first English language film, parodied modern romance by imagining a world where single people are transformed into animals if they are unable to find a partner. His follow-up, 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is a terse thriller in which a father’s regrets threaten his family with illness and death. To say Lanthimos’ work is weird would be to put it lightly. With The Favourite, Lanthimos steps away from the outright absurdity of his previous films in favor of a historical drama while maintaining his sharp and distinct directing style.
The Favourite is a deeply personal and darkly funny period piece centered around Queen Anne of England. Anne, expertly played by Olivia Colman, is in failing health and in the midst of The War of the Spanish Succession. Her lifelong friend and advisor Lady Sarah, played with bitingly cold grace by Rachel Weisz, is ever loyal to the Queen, if not constantly preoccupied with running the country. Emma Stone takes the third lead as Abigail, a peasant girl fallen from ladyship and desperate to find a place within the Queen’s favor.
The interplay between these three women is the driving force of the film. Their complex relationship is a dance of romance, power, and politics. The dialogue, written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, strays from Lanthimos’ typically direct and deadpan cadence. Instead, each sharp and clever line is delivered in flowery Victorian English. Regardless, the screenplay is ever as witty and darkly funny as any of the director’s previous work.
All three women own their respective characters completely, and their performances are each a joy to watch. Colman’s Anne is a fragile, tentative ruler who more than anything desires affection from her people and her court. Weisz’s Lady Sarah is an austere, imposing and no-nonsense woman. She’s direct and forward with her Queen, and openly critical with her. Nevertheless, she shows a deep care and consideration for Anne. Conversely, Stone’s Abigail showers the Queen with kindness and warmth, driving a wrench between her and Lady Sarah as she attempts to regain her title and overcome her position as a servant.
The push-pull relationship of these three women is terse and gripping throughout. The Favourite is a complex story of class, romance, and power. It unfolds with nuance and balance as its characters develop. There are equal measures here of drama, pathos, and humor that demonstrate Lanthimos’ talent in a way that exceeds his previous works.
The strength of lead performances is matched and elevated by the film’s costume and production design. The monarchy’s excess is expertly realized in Queen Anne’s utterly lavish palace, and perfectly framed in natural light by Lanthimos’ precise directing and Robbie Ryan’s keen cinematography. Special attention to detail was executed in each of the sets, with Anne’s personal bedchamber being a notable standout. The intricate floor to ceiling decorations are beautifully created, surrounding Anne in affluence. Likewise, the lavish dresses and costumes worn by the cast are sure to get costume designer Sandy Powell attention at the Academy Awards. In a way, the absurdity of Lanthimos’ previous films has found its outlet in the flagrant wealth of the film’s subjects. Nicholas Hoult’s Harley, one of the prominent members of Queen Anne’s court, is a notable standout here. His over the top make-up and wigs consistently surprise and delight.
By all accounts, The Favourite is Yorgos Lanthimos’ best film. It’s perfectly written and acted. It’s gorgeous to listen to and look at. It tells a story with resonance and staying power. In this way, it is also his most accessible film, and is sure to attract much more favorable attention from critics and audiences alike than his more divisive previous work. However, those who were charmed by the distinct weirdness of those previous films may find something missing here. The period dialogue is sharp to be sure, but it does not have the distinctiveness so unique to The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. In that way, for some, The Favourite may be Lanthimos’ best work, but ultimately not their favorite.
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Jack makes drugs for a living, but not necessarily the fun kind. He enjoys international travel and discussing music, movies, and games in excruciating detail.