The Favourite is a film I had to approach with a certain caution; Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous two films were promising concepts marred by bizarre narrative choices. There was so much distance from the characters in The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer that any potentially meaningful moment lost most of its impact. It is clear Lanthimos is attempting a certain surreal style, but he hasn’t quite gotten it to fully work. The positives largely outweigh the negatives in both, but both failed to stick a landing. They have the touch of a master-in-training, someone with clear talent still figuring out how to make an overall cohesive and compelling piece.
The Favourite gets off to a strong start by never promising anything too big. This is a straightforward piece, a tale of two women fighting for the affection of Queen Anne, their battle growing increasingly desperate as the film goes on. Lanthimos avoids having to waste time elaborating on an oddball hook that works better in concept than in action, instead able to focus on his best traits as a director.
The Favourite offers up a simply phenomenal screenplay to three equally wonderful actresses. Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz play perfect foils to each other. Colman’s Queen Anne is an eccentric, lost to her whims whenever they arrive, gullible yet convinced of her control. She is a figure that is there to be manipulated, always teetering on the edge of lashing out due to distrust.
Stone’s Abigail and Weisz’s Sarah are in a necessary war with each other. Abigail aspires to move up in life, a fallen lady, and the easiest option is to win the queen’s favour. Sarah, meanwhile, has been a lifelong companion to the queen, now manipulating her to carry on an unpopular war. These two characters play aware of the other’s manipulations, both knowing they must cover for the other lest they similarly be discovered.
The screenplay offers many muted yet blunt barbs between the two. Weisz is in control of her reactions, a woman convinced of her own ability to win out in the end. Stone, meanwhile, plays Abigail as a woman lacking in subtlety. She scoffs and turns away to mutter under her breath, only barely capable of hiding her intentions. Queen Anne, meanwhile, is the one character allowed to speak her true mind at any moment, granting her a certain oblivious straightforwardness that is both hilarious and frightening.
Lanthimos has an affinity for vulgarity. In his earlier works, it served little more than to remind us that the characters existed in a social world that operated differently than our own. We expect a certain response, but characters ignore these statements as if they are entirely normal. Here, the vulgarity instead works as a statement; the past is nowhere near as clean as other period pieces like to pretend. It plays against our expectations, but the actresses speak with such conviction that it never strikes as out of place. The greatest moments of this film come when a character says something entirely awful, in part because it reveals the power they believe they carry.
The Favourite, while great because it resists the glorification of the past so inherent in most period pieces, delights in visual pleasure. The costumes, the set design, they are all very gorgeous. Lanthimos uses this to play with us; we believe the designs as concepts of the past, allowing him to sneak in modern elements that create confusion before you catch up to the fact that, yes, this film made in 2018 is capable of mixing several eras together without justification. One of the film’s finest scenes finds Weisz dancing with a man at a party, their moves increasingly out of place as it carries on. Lanthimos finds comedy by adding pieces that don’t fit.
The Favourite is a success through and through. Lanthimos avoids getting lost in concepts, creating his first film where the characters feel like actual people. As such, there’s a degree of emotional investment, even as the three leads become increasingly awful people. His playfulness is likewise more effective, as his toying is more obviously humorous. Like The Handmaiden from two years earlier, The Favourite stands as one of the best modern period pieces in large part by questioning and deconstructing the genre in a way that puts the past in an odd but more believable light. Behind all the fancy costumes and parties, this is an era where people had to violently struggle to survive in a world of rigid social structure, where everything can be lost on the whims of a single unsound person.
5 out of 5 Stars