For those of you familiar with the films of Yorgos Lanthimos, you are well aware that his style is captivating and typically offbeat. Many times I am annoyed by intentionally quirky movies because they often lack supporting substance, yet I have always found Lanthimos’ projects extremely intriguing for being equally fascinating and out of the ordinary. For those who haven’t been indoctrinated into the Lanthimos club, the polarizing director usually favors deadpan delivery from his actors, bizarre subject matter, and a subtle but compelling aesthetic that draws you into his unique universe. In his latest effort, however, Lanthimos departs from his usual weirdness with a costume period piece that is, ironically, his most accessible film yet.
The film revolves around the court of the British monarchy in the early 18th century. Though the feeble and temperamental Queen Anne wears the crown, it is her closest confidant, Sarah Duchess of Marlborough, who has the greatest influence over the Queen and thus the politics of the country. As Sarah busies herself as a liaison between the palace and the Whigs while defending her husband’s controversial tactics in the ongoing war with France, a clever maid named Abigail infiltrates the court and becomes quite the influencer in her own right. A former aristocrat who fell from grace, Abigail is no ordinary maid, and an unexpected alliance with Robert Harley, the leader of the Tory party, proves to be mutually beneficial for the two schemers who both wish to gain favor with the Queen.
While all of this may sound rather yawn worthy on paper, writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s version of the historic tale revels in the scandalous behind-the-scenes drama between the players with just as much sexual intrigue as political. Also buoying the story amid all the seriousness is a thread of humor and amusement that saves the film from drowning in stuffy pomp and circumstance.
Additionally, a solid dose of vulgarity nicely balances the buttoned up vibe of the period. There is a lot of stroking (both literal and figurative) going on in THE FAVOURITE- ducks and rabbits, canes, legs, genitals...and most importantly, egos. The use of these and other not-so-subtle visual cues throughout the film evokes a kind of silly bawdiness that keeps the overall tone light. While those in the court behave appropriately in public, a closer look reveals questionable morals that provide a delicious juxtaposition to the formality of the time.
Unlike many periods films, Lanthimos chooses not to employ sweeping or ultra romanticized views of palace life. Yes, THE FAVOURITE is wonderfully resplendent featuring of an absolute parade of gorgeous costuming, however it highlights them in a rather straight forward style not burdened by any cinematic bells or whistles. In fact, the only stylized theme is the occasional establishing shot filmed with a “fish eye” lens that gives a sense of peering into a secret world from the outside. Aside from that, Lanthimos allows the beautiful royal grounds and ornate finery to speak for itself.
In further contrast to his other films, Lanthimos’ has abandoned the dead pan delivery he had his actors adopt in his last two films. Though I found this technique quite captivating in those former projects, I found myself very glad to have the wonderful performers of THE FAVOURITE strut their stuff with such absorbing aplomb.
As the consummately afflicted Queen Anne, Olivia Colman captures the monarch very carefully. While in most instances her character’s vulnerability is on full display with childlike tantrums, immature whims, and even pathetic gluttony, Colman also justly conveys the underlying psychological and physiological turmoil that makes her Queen surprising relatable.
Emma Stone simply rules her role as Abigail. She is both plucky and conniving, a winning combination that makes her likable even when she’s being horrid. Stone aptly embodies the personality of a woman who is temptress, Lady, and master manipulator all rolled up in one character, and she does it delightfully.
And then there’s Rachel Weisz as the arrogant but honest Sarah. Her character means business at all times, and Weisz is outstanding as she portrays the headstrong woman who learns the hard way about taking her eyes off the prize. Her performance as the cutthroat Duchess, though very steady, also hints at some of the flaws in her otherwise impeccable resolve. Her character is honest and straight forward to a fault sometimes, and Weisz does a terrific job showing just enough of her soft side to keep Sarah likable and sympathetic.
The more I think about THE FAVOURITE the more I like it. It has humor, wit, gorgeous costumes, a magnificent setting, brilliant performances, and a dash of indecency that makes for a thoroughly entertaining film. While not exactly riveting, the film’s artifice, intrigue, and eye candy results in a delightful tale of historical double-dealing and is my “favourite” (oh yes I did) Lanthimos outing so far. THE FAVOURITE opens in theaters on 11/30, and I highly recommend checking it out. Thanks for reading.
Until next time,
aka Annette Kellerman