The Favourite is hypnotizing, hysterical, and one of the best films of the year
This review is part of Reel Nine’s coverage of the 41st Denver Film Festival. You can find reviews of other films at the festival here.
There’s no filmmaker quite like Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek writer-director who found his niche in crafting emotionally detached but simultaneously hilarious and haunting explorations of odd characters in even odder situations. A master at finding depth in deadpan, his first two English language features, The Lobster and last year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, represent some of the very best films of the last few years and have cemented him as a cult favorite. As if Lanthimos couldn’t treat us enough, he outdoes himself yet again with his newest film The Favourite, a rowdy, captivating, and frequently funny delight that sees a filmmaker and a trio of the world’s greatest actresses at the height of their already immeasurable talent.
On paper, The Favourite seems like a rather run-of-the mill period piece, a curious choice for the more abstract Lanthimos. Very loosely based on events in the life of England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, Tyrannosaur), the film follows a battle of wills between Anne’s favored companion Sarah (Rachel Weisz, The Mummy) and palace new arrival Abigail (Emma Stone, La La Land). Anne, sickly, needy, and thin-skinned, represents opportunity for the two women combating for her approval. To be by her side is to hold power. For Sarah, that means maintaining her position as the most respected woman in the country. For Abigail, that means returning to the high-class life she once inhabited before her drunken father sent it all crashing down. Both are willing to do anything (anything) to win the heart of the tortured woman they call their queen.
Period drama seems to go against everything in Lanthimos’ repertoire, too melodramatic to match his knack for humorously stuffy characters and too formal to let his wilder provocations as a director run free. Against all odds, it may actually the most fitting genre he’s tackled yet. Allowing him to upend convention at every turn, Lanthimos has a blast poking holes in the mythos surrounding English aristocracy. Whereas most period films hone in on the idea that the bourgeois are a prim and proper collection of beige autocrats, Lanthimos sees the absurdity in the facade of the monarchy. He uses it to craft a biting takedown of privileged culture, creating a satire that is just as funny as it is impactful, with a delicious twist to boot.
The world Lanthimos creates for these characters is no moral utopia, opting instead for a setting where unchecked decadence and extravagance are the norm. You won’t find many quiet cups of tea here. Instead these lords and ladies hold duck races (starring Horatio, the fastest duck in the city and Reel Nine’s animal actor of the year), pelt each other’s naked bodies with fruit, and consume enough booze to make your local barfly blush. For every scene of political intrigue, there’s a scene of rich depravity to match it. It’s all highlighted by an admirable lack of formality behind the camera from Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Slow West), who forgo the strict rules of Academy-style period filmmaking for techniques including fish-eye lenses, comical slow motion, and a disarmingly tight framing of every emotion put on screen.
Of course, none of this would work without solid work from Lanthimos’s esteemed collection of actors, and Colman, Weisz, and Stone all provide career performances here. Stone is dynamite, turning in a crackling portrayal of the desperate lengths one will go to in order to rise above her station. Abigail is arguably the main character, with the narrative largely following her rise from lowly maid to the queen’s adored companion, and Stone revels in the spotlight. Stone makes her a fascinating survivor, quickly corruptible, infinitely resourceful, and always more determined than any of the other characters can expect. She’s arguably the most devilish player present, and it’s hard to imagine some more better suited than Stone in the role, who sells it largely due to her background in comedy, which gave her years of preparation for the exasperated looks, verbal jabs, and wanton physicality here.
Weisz too is at the top of her game here as Sarah, standing out as the most stalwart member of the cast, a character defined by her desire to remain in power but given layers by her genuine love and affection for Anne. Weisz is a frequently underrated, alarmingly intense actor, razor sharp in this role but softened by a bubbling sensitivity underneath all the nasty wit. Sarah represents the heart of the film, a member of the old guard confounded and incensed by the threat of the new and perhaps oblivious to the faults of the way things are. Her cold, calculating nature may represent the aristocracy’s indifference to change, but she stands apart due to the loyalty and dedication Weisz brings out through her measured but human performance.
Despite the fine work from Weisz and Stone, Colman is undoubtedly best in show here. She is absolutely hysterical in her warts-and-all turn as Anne, rejecting any notion of giving into regal stereotypes to create a portrayal of a queen plagued by insecurity, selfishness, and an overwhelming dose of sadness. There’s two standard outlines for what the depiction of a monarch should look like: either the character is a stately, articulate leader or an increasingly deranged lunatic bent on destroying everyone around them. Colman doesn’t buy into either, creating an unaware but still deeply human queen who, like, any of us, desires love above all else. A lack of love, combined with years of tragedy, creates a character that lets Colman be a maniac, albeit a deeply funny, even sympathetic one.
In its essence, The Favourite is the ultimate act of cinematic rebellion, not only a rejection of tropes in a genre stuffed with them but also of the criticisms surrounding Lanthimos’s own career. Despite his praise and popularity, he’s a filmmaker with considerable scores of detractors who focus largely on the opinion that his alienated style is the sign of an emotionally stunted, unemphatic director. Here he proves them all wrong with a bombastic showing, illustrating that his propensity for muted emotions doesn’t come from a place of misunderstanding but form a place of deep awareness of both the comedy and tragedy of the human spirit. For Lanthimos, sentimentality is a cop-out. In his eyes, conflict breeds honesty, and if detachment is the method from which he conjures said conflict, then so be it. Cinema is nothing if not a search for honesty in chaos, and few films express this to a degree as attuned as The Favourite. Maybe a poignant moment between Sarah and Anne says it best. Anne, upset with Sarah, asks why she is so frequently blunt instead of showering her queen with compliments. Sarah replies, “I will not lie. That is love.”