Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
From 3rd January 2019
Reviewed by Nick Daly
The Favourite is the third English-language film by arthouse Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, after The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
The film’s brilliant trailer had a particular emphasis on comedy, but any viewer familiar with Lanthimos should know to expect something slightly more sinister. The film is much more low-key, downbeat and unsettling than it appears, and there’s an undercurrent of grotesqueness to The Favourite that most viewers possibly won’t be expecting.
Nevertheless, it’s not a film that hits you over the head with these ideas, but more unfolds quietly and seeps into your subconscious to linger long after the credits have rolled.
Lanthimos’ past films are almost indescribably absurd, strangely depressing and ridden with dark comic undertones. This time, he’s adapting English history and working from a script he didn’t write for the first time, but while The Favourite is Lanthimos at his most commercially accessible, it’s still distinctly his film. He’s a director so unusual that a conventional Lanthimos film still manages to be a generally unconventional one.
Set in 18th century England, a fragile Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) occupies the throne. However, it’s her close friend and advisor Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) who essentially governs the country for the Queen while also tending to her ill health. That is until Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) falls out of a stage wagon and into the palace looking for work. She’s hired as a scullery maid, but as she begins to manipulate members of the palace in order to get closer to the Queen, it’s soon clear that she has much bigger ambitions.
There’s an intriguing story to be told here by a trio of talented actresses, but it’s mostly concealed by the film’s insistent need for eccentric humour, as characters speak overwritten lines of dialogue that appear to be written solely for the sake of quirkiness.
The effect is the film seeming to hold the viewer at arms length, preventing them from feeling involved in the narrative so that they’re instead left to watch in mild bemusement.
Absurdity is fine, but the truth is The Favourite comes alive when the characters are allowed to act like human beings. An example is a particularly strong scene where Abigail inquires about the seventeen rabbits Queen Anne keeps in her room.
The Queen responds by mournfully confessing that they represent each one of her dead children (quite an ingenious way of visualising a character’s grief). Frustratingly, it proves that there’s a very compelling and well-acted narrative underneath all of the film’s contrived eccentricities.
The fact is there’s a sadness at the core of the film, in part due to the mutli-layered and tragic way Olivia Colman portrays Queen Anne, so the whimsical humour simply feels odd juxtaposed against it. Because of these contradictions, it’s unclear whether Lanthimos wants the viewer to take his film seriously or not. Perhaps this awkward clash of ideas is expected, however, when an outlandish director is hired to adapt another person’s script.
Of course, this level of confusion could be entirely intentional, since other more technical aspects of the film appear to wilfully set out to disorient the viewer. A fisheye lens is frequently used in certain shots, encompassing whole rooms in an unsettling fashion as characters walk around, while sudden camera pans to certain objects or people are littered throughout.
At times, the film looks like a low-budget and experimental student film, which is an interesting contradiction to the high-budget costumes, sets and actors in its lens.
Since most period films are usually stifled in their formulaic execution, there is part of me that finds a refreshing aspect to these oddities. Often portrayed as refined and stately, The Favourite paints a vulgar picture of the past that is possibly more truthful than other period pieces, as characters consistently drop C-words, perform sex acts and vomit multiple times throughout. Of course, other filmmakers have attempted a reinterpretation of history, Sofia Copolla’s pop music-infused Marie Antoinette to name one, but to depict it in such an arthouse and grotesque way feels like unexplored and sometimes exciting territory.
One aspect of the film’s eccentricity I feel is the most successful is its use of sound. Vivaldi blasts onto the soundtrack at effective moments in the film, such as Abigail storming down long corridors after successfully working up the ranks of the palace’s hierarchy.
Meanwhile, an unusual minimalist score of a screeching violin is played at certain times. The sound is obtrusive, challenging and gleefully overstays its welcome, adding an uneasy feeling of tension and feeling almost like an art installation than a sequence in a film, and I think it’s an interesting directorial decision by Lanthimos.
In another example of interesting sound choices, there’s a scene where Queen Anne and Abigail are dancing in her room while audio from another scene plays over it; a scene where Abigail is shooting birds outside with a rifle. While the message is not exactly subtle, it’s a beautifully artistic scene that is the best demonstration of the successful quirky aspects in the film, and it works because its eccentricity is used for the benefit of the development of the characters and the narrative.
Lastly, as expressed briefly earlier, Colman deserves all the awards recognition she’s currently receiving as the multi-layered Queen Anne. Sometimes she’s gleefully playing with her rabbits on her bedroom floor like a little girl, and at others she’s screaming down corridors in a confused state, giving a distressing insight into her mental health.
Rachel Weisz is less flamboyant as the mostly stoic and unflappable Lady Sarah, but sometimes it’s even more impressive that she manages to be just as sublime and multi-dimensional as Colman in a more subdued role.
Meanwhile, Emma Stone, perhaps the most surprising casting decision of the three, delivers her best performance yet. Last seen most notably in her all-American Oscar-winning performance in La La Land (a role that’s on the complete opposite end of the spectrum of her one currently), she surprisingly fits seamlessly into the 18th century English setting of The Favourite.
It’s actually smart casting in that you suspect from Stone’s naturally charismatic persona that Abigail has honest intentions, until the developing narrative gradually reveals otherwise, and Stone embodies the character every step of the way.