Yorgos Lanthimos has established himself as not only the creator of surreal and strangely dry, dark comedies which borderline on the absurd, but also an extremely talented director who received comparisons to Kubrick after his last film, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (2017). To contrast against that film and The Lobster (2015), where unnatural, idiosyncratic, almost robotic dialogue created a very strange atmosphere, The Favourite often features a manner of speaking that is again unique, but in almost in the opposite way. This is especially apparent when Weisz delivers many of her lines: often rapidly, filled with wit and occasionally a quick insult, many of which remind us that this is a Lanthimos film.
The film’s story is quite basic, with the more detailed plot elements such as the politics are the war against France relegated to the background, creating a much more conventional and therefore accessible film than his previous efforts. At least at first glance. Despite the consistent quirkiness, The Favourite is based on actual royals from the 18th century, bending their personalities to its will with only the core elements of events as well as its characters remain. But even this royal three have been twisted into distorted versions of themselves that fit rather perfectly into Lanthimos’ world.
It centres around an unwell Queen Anne who is suffering from a severe case of gout and often relies on her favourite companion, Lady Sarah, who doesn’t seem to care that her husband is fighting on the front lines in a war against France. She is more than happy with her situation at home as, given Queen Anne’s condition and her fondness for Sarah, for the most part Sarah is the de facto leader, trying push through unpopular motions in court, one of which suggesting they continue the war as if she is relaying what the Queen has said verbatim. This is leads to the anger of the hilariously overplayed court (Nicholas Hoult in particular).
Circumstances change soon after the arrival of Abigail, a cousin and childhood friend of Lady Sarah. Her arrival has her covered in mud (‘they shit in the streets’ she is told), leading to an awkward meeting with Lady Sarah and Queen Anne. Hoping to find work after the crumbling of her family, Sarah seems to forget their childhood and takes an instant disliking to her, first giving her a job in the kitchen downstairs where she burns her hands after being told to clean floor, unaware that she was given lye.
Sarah takes every opportunity to passive aggressively taunt Abigail to cruelly imply her higher status, but events change again when Abigail creates a herbal remedy for one of the Queen’s debilitating ailments. After this intrusion into a room where she is not welcome, the Queen’s bedroom at that, Sarah’s passive aggression towards Abigail slowly becomes not so passive, especially when Anne becomes fond of Abigail thanks to the effective remedy. Having had her way for how long, we don’t know, she becomes obviously jealous.
Hence, the core premise of the story begins: a competition for the Queen’s affection between the two cousins to be her favourite. A very unique love triangle. It is clear from the start how nasty Lady Sarah can be, but behind Abigail’s warm, harmless looking smile lies a crafty women in her own right, and the battle filled with petty bitchiness and nasty plans between the two begins.
Meanwhile, the depiction of the ruling class under Queen Anne as a troupe of clowns has Yorgos’ name stamped all over it.
Wearing an absurd amount of white make-up while donning what could literally be dead sheep as wigs, their pointless squabbling in court is overshadowed by how strange they fill their free time: Excitedly betting on duck races, and in the most surreal scene of the film, a group of men throw vegetables at naked man who is giggling while covering his genitals.
Certainly then, their behaviour as a whole paints them as aristocratic buffoons who happen to have power over the entire country. The behaviour of Lady Sarah however seems to have the final word.
Also interesting (and obviously deliberate) are some subtle modern touches that do not belong in the period at all, such as insanely odd attempt at flirting, and a bizarre dance with a few moves that almost touch on break-dancing (one part already a moving GIF). There are also a few modern phrases that can be easy to miss (‘political commentary’ being an early and easy one to pick), as well as the use of a certain curse word that, especially when it is first used, is loud, harsh and entirely unexpected. It is startling, and one wonders if that particular slur existed in the 18th century. These realistically wrong aspects are a staple of Yorgos’ films, and while odd at first aren’t surprising.
Much like his last film, cherry picks classical pieces, some of which belong perfectly in this period. There is also use of contemporary classical music, the most prominently and memorable is Luc Ferrari’s Didascalies, used appropriately during key candlelit moments. It creates a quite unforgettable atmosphere, and the dark strums of the viola are hard to forget as well.
Technically, the film is reminiscent of Yorgos’ previous efforts visually, as each scene, each shot is near perfect and it is clear that there has been much thought put into each. Mostly taking place indoors, many scenes depict the scale of the Queen’s palace with exceptional tracking shots. The confusion that fills Abigail’s first experience in the kitchen is captured using fish-eyes lenses, effectively conveying her confusion as it warps the entire shot. These lenses are used at appropriate times as they turn the straight lines of the palace floors curvy, among other hall-of-mirror like distortions,
Interestingly, many exclusively candlelit shots create an atmosphere of confusion and trickery, first in larger rooms of the house as Abigail explores the first floor, but especially when shot in corridors, the confined space and especially the darkness which is only kept at bay by the candles. The scenes within the corridors create an ominous atmosphere, never accompanied by anything close to positive. These dark scenes (that are amazingly realised) have the effect that they do as Yorgos has never used artificial light, always working with nature. The candlelit walks are the most impressive to gaze at, even more so given the fact that none of these scenes are ever too dark.
Every single actor involved in this film is incredible, whether it is ‘wanking man’ who Abigail meets quickly on her trip to Queen Anne, or the absurd politicians who all bow to her majesty no matter how much they disagree with her decision, but that is a point for another day.
Olivia Colman playing the sick, eccentric Queen complete with mood swings, occasional childish behaviour while spending more time with her 17 rabbits than anyone or anything else surely stands out as the best performance. She appropriately won an award at Venice for her performance given her incredibly believable and varied emotional range, often seeming at the point of suicide, insanity, or both. If the film had a more user-friendly director she’d easily be an Oscar candidate.
A very slight step down from Colman is Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, the former an outwardly witty but bitchy Duchess who hits perfection in her depiction of such a woman, especially when talking to Abigail as a friend despite her passive-aggressive nature. Emma Stone continues to show growth in this role, as her eyes and smile often mask her true thoughts while she is convincing when genuinely annoyed, jealous, satisfied or anything in-between. All male characters are appropriately left in the background given the story, which is a nice change, and more often that not are acting like fools. In the few scenes he is in though, Nicholas Hoult is great fun under all the makeup.
While the setting of this film may initially worry fans of the Greek director, they need not as The Favourite continues to keep Yorgos’ trademark torch of weirdness alight and as alive as it could be. It takes a genre that is often serious, especially when based on real historical people of the time, into uncharted land. Despite that potential barrier than the three main characters were real people, Yorgos takes aim, and much like Lady Sarah, hits his target easily, firing at this genre with accuracy. Poking fun at the aristocrats who often populate them, both low and high in rank, and filled with an insane amount of absurdity, it could be given many labels, as it is outrageous, over the top, incredibly weird at times, and overall extremely funny. Perhaps ‘absurdist period satirist comedy’ is a good fit. Probably a little to much there, but there are many labels floating around that are just as bizarre. How about ‘misanthropic baroque costume drama’? That one is not fake.
Suddenly ‘absurdist period satirist comedy’ seems much more sane, eh? However, its label is irrelevant. These uncountable and varied genre blend ideas prove it is incredibly layered and different from anything else floating around. Not to mention that the more you think about it, the more you realise that its near perfect execution, but more so, its initially clear and user-friendly plot is what makes it seem more accessible. In reality though it is just as fucked up as his previous films, if not more so, which is quite an achievement.
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