This historical comedy from filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos is a savage, acerbic delight.
December 23, 2018
Whenever Yorgos Lanthimos' name comes up in film-related chatter, it's usually accompanied by the words 'Greek Weird Wave'. Since Dogtooth earned an Oscar nomination, the director has become synonymous with the offbeat cinema coming out of his homeland — movies that, like the filmmaker's grief-focused Alps, proudly explore life with more than a dash of absurdity. He's since moved on to English-language productions with high-profile stars, but the same strange sensibilities remain baked into his work. That said, perhaps Lanthimos' movies aren't all that odd. Perhaps he's simply stripping away the social niceties that we've all been taught to accept, and exposing human interaction for the transactional exchange that it is.
If The Lobster's vision of love or The Killing of a Sacred Deer's tale of a family facing tragedy didn't already make it plain, Lanthimos' films present the world as a constant fight between giving and taking. Rarely has that been more apparent than in The Favourite, where a monarch's lackeys view friendship with a royal as a path to personal glory. So, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) gives the needy, gout-stricken, often bedridden Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) everything she wants: companionship, love, sex, an ear to hear all of her worries and a steady hand to help rule the kingdom. Well, almost everything. She can't abide the 17 rabbits that Anne treats as her surrogate children for a very sad reason, and she's not afraid to tell the sovereign when her makeup makes her look like a badger. But Sarah also takes, elevating her own power as the country tries to survive the War of Spanish Succession, and then flouting her status over the rest of the scheming court.
Into an ostensibly comfortable situation arrives Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a cousin of Sarah's who has fallen upon hard times. The newcomer's request for a servant job goes smoothly enough, but here's the catch when life is a perpetual tug-of-war: everyone only wants to give if they're going to get something in return. Oozing ruthlessness and cunning despite her innocent facade, Abigail makes herself indispensable to the Queen. Soon, it's the younger woman who's always by the ruler's side. The equally calculating Sarah might be trying to oversee England's military strategies against the French and keep an influential landowner (Nicholas Hoult) in his place, however she still has time to battle it out for Anne's attention and affection.
The savage dialogue, each line wittier, bleaker and yet still funnier than the next. The gleeful abandon of polite, ordinary behaviour. The acerbic insights that prove equal parts perceptive and awkward. Thanks to all three — plus an utter disdain for meeting anyone's expectations — being an actor in Lanthimos' films seems like one of the best jobs in the world. Working with a script by first-timer Deborah Davis and Australian screenwriter Tony McNamara (Puberty Blues), Colman, Weisz and Stone all lap up their parts. Colman might've been deemed the lead for awards consideration (and may very well win a deserved Oscar as a result), but this is a stellar three-hander. The trio of talents relish Lanthimos' usual penchant for stilted conversations, as well as his foray into new territory. While a politically charged, 19th century, somewhat slapstick comedy isn't the filmmaker's usual wheelhouse, maybe it should be.
As fantastic a director as Lanthimos is of actors, he's also an auteur with a distinctive eye. His movies resemble no one else's — and when he's satirising history in a lavish period picture that also keenly reflects today's political chaos, that fact is blatantly apparent. The Favourite looks the part, with its action largely confined to the Queen's ornately appointed castle, and with its characters donning decadent dresses and powdered wigs. But, using fish-eye lenses to literally give a different perspective, plus wide shots to emphasise the stifling nature of the palace's empty spaces, Robbie Ryan's (American Honey) cinematography is anything but stiff and formal. There's a bite to Lanthimos' approach, of course, as there always is. He isn't just interested in depicting the selfishness and arrogance behind Anne, Sarah and Abigail's twisted triangle. As one hell of a final shot hammers home, he's all about the cost.