By: Steve Pulaski
Exquisitely decorated in addition to its fixation with unconventional camera angles existing almost solely as a key-point for viewer fascination, The Favourite, even with its shortcomings, is the type of period drama I'd gleefully watch on repeat as opposed to something like Mary Queen of Scots. I've grown nauseated by the archetypal Hollywood offerings, with their lovely costumes and meticulous makeup appearing ostensibly as a ruse to disguise a film that would bore you silly by the pedantic nature of it all. After defying the theory of evolution and slaughtering the most sacred of deer, Yorgos Lanthimos has ditched the hospital settings and scruffy Colin Farrell leading man for his third (American) feature. The Favourite is a nasty, intellectual account of vindictive, British elites, set to a grating score and equipped with macabre acts and contemptible characters. Be honest — would you have it any other way?
After not falling head over heels for The Lobster yet being pleasantly riveted by The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I've kept my eye on Lanthimos, anticipating more of the same discomfort and uncertainty. I've embraced his desire to round up recognizable faces for his movies and completely subvert audience expectations; even the kind you usually harbor when charting unfamiliar cinematic territory. The Favourite is well-worth your attention, if only for the way it works in the director's true fashion of defying your moviegoing wisdom.
We're immersed in early 1700s Britain as the War of the Spanish Succession wages on. Behind the glitz and glamour of the throne lies a hotbed of emotional instability, cattiness, and deception that runs deep in Queen Anne's (Oliva Colman) kingdom, especially as she's ailing from gout and gnarly body-sores. By her side is the loyal Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who works with Prime Minister Godolphin (In the Loop's James Smith) as the two find ways to bleed dry the working class/landowners in order to finance the war against the French. Then along comes Sarah's cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), a privileged aristocrat who arrives caked in horse dung — more than enough of a visual to show she's fallen on tough times. Her father dealt her in a card game when she was a teenager and subsequently set the family estate and himself on fire to literally wipe out his debts. Practically begging for work, Abigail gets assigned menial labor by Sarah, although she quickly climbs up the hierarchical ladder and succeeds in being rather chummy with the Queen. She also has a little bit of dirt on her hands as opposed to her face and dress by then.
While it's never clear who is ultimately going to come out of this mess on top (or with less blemishes, I suppose is the more accurate assessment), screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara do their part to put the spotlight on the seemingly well-meaning Abigail whenever opportunity calls. But neither their assertions nor the character herself would work half as well if Emma Stone didn't rise to the challenge, once again, and play a captivating, conniving servant. In fact, all three female leads do a fantastic job of working off each other as a means for personal gain. Rachel Weisz continues to show how overlooked she is, suiting up for a role that has her as endlessly captivating as she is stern and unmoved. Colman, although largely incapacitated or unable to maneuver freely for long stretches of the film, too excels nicely in a role that is given another dimension due to its physical limitations. Queen Anne is still well-respected despite being unable to present the physical strength necessary for the job, yet her being ill-equipped doesn't render her a sorry caricature.
Undoubtedly the most noteworthy aesthetic detail in The Favourite is Lanthimos' camerawork, which is once again Kubrickian in its unexpected angles and sometimes symmetrical, equiangular presentation. Here, he favors three distinct shots: the low-angle, which makes us feel like we're beneath even the peasants in the film, the fish-bowl, which causes whatever individual or object in the center of the screen to protrude outwards, while the space on the left and right appears as if it's contained in a circular bubble, and the long shot, which gives the characters enough headroom for another person to stand atop their shoulders and still have their own adequate amount of headroom. Such traits have gone from being simple stylistic choices by Lanthimos to being part of his own oeuvre. Their inclusions help illustrate the arena in which we are present, one in which we know we don't belong and are made to feel like voyeurs in a cabinet of complex interpersonal relationships, or lack thereof, snakery, and conflicting motivations.
Lanthimos' previous feature, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, was an artful hybrid of slowburn drama and psychological body horror. It had a way of keeping you invested with its loopy narrative and slimy characters through awkward encounters between characters and caustic wit. While not a film I loved, it was one of the most fiercely original works I saw last year, and one I've looked on with great fondness since seeing. The Favourite, on the other hand, could've been crazier, more sardonic in its wit and extreme with its sensibilities. Perhaps because Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou didn't write The Favourite justifies some of its more sinister moments not coming to life like one might expect.
The deadpan dialog and sneaky humor still comes with regularity, bless it so. One of my favorite instances with the latter comes when Sarah awakes in a bordello upon having a horrific accident and asks where she is, upon seeing a disgusting man fornicate with another woman right before her eyes. "You're in Heaven," the woman attending to her says. "That's God over there. He'll be with you shortly."
At this stage of the game, however, it's fair to expect a tad more from the Greek director who has given us enough originality and off-kilter premises that we are still in-debt with our praise, although praise we continue. The Favourite isn't far off from The Beguiled, thanks to its historical ties and sinister storyline, or this year's Thoroughbreds, for its nihilistic, manipulative female characters, and that's great in its own respect because those films are very good. The point is that it did indeed need to be further off. That's how we could tell we had gotten something seriously strange and deliciously diabolical on our hands.