In the early 18th century, England is at war with France and an ailing Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is deeply depressed, shutting herself off from the rest of the world while all the major political decisions are made by her controlling advisor/lover Lady Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Lady Marlborough’s young cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), a disgraced former lady, soon arrives looking for work and is appointed as a scullery maid but it later becomes clear that she has ulterior motives and as she cosies up to the Queen with the hopes of regaining her standing, Lady Marlborough grows increasingly jealous and the two of them compete to be “the favourite”, each of them determined to defeat the other.
Despite the critical praise and attention that director Yorgos Lanthimos has received for films like The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, he’s never really been my cup of tea. With the former, I’m on the fence because it had an imaginative concept and a brilliant first half but was derailed by a dull second half and with Sacred Deer, I didn’t like it at all because the characters were unlikable and the whole thing was cold, emotionless and too weird for the sake of being weird. But I actually loved Dogtooth because it was wonderfully weird, dark and intriguing and the fact that it wasn’t in the English language actually worked in its favour.
So with one of Lanthimos’ films that I loved, one I thought was okay and one that I actively disliked, I went into The Favourite in a most unique position. With the scales perfectly balanced, just what would I think of his newest film? Which camp – love, indifferent or hate – would it fall into?
Well, I’d say that The Favourite is a win for Lanthimos because, despite a dip in interest in the third act, the film has a strong and engrossing story, it’s just the right amount of weird, the production design, direction and cinematography is spot on and, perhaps above everything else, the central trio of actresses bring the film to life.
In the central role, national treasure Olivia Colman is always interesting to watch on screen; as Queen Anne, she starts off appearing a little flighty, perhaps a little dim and with a certain childlike quality but soon, we see the constant loneliness, depression, uncertainty and pain in her face as we learn about the tragedies that she has previously endured and we see her lose her way and go a little mad, though later on she regains a little composure and often asserts her dominance when required. Colman projects the right amount of fragility and vulnerability in her role while also occasionally injecting the character with both some Lanthimos style weird comedy and power when required. An intriguing presence indeed.
Alongside, Emma Stone initially shows a certain amount of naivety and a sweet, unassuming manner as her character is made to endure several indignities but as time goes by, it becomes clear that she’s up to something and Stone shows all those necessary facial expressions to signify ulterior motives and the occasional knowing grin. As she works towards her goal, her character becomes something more confident and more formidable and Stone makes the gradual transition from “sheep to wolf” rather well; she gives it all she’s got and gets herself involved in all the dark, peculiar moments like a pro. Nicholas Hoult also has a role as the smarmy, scheming leader of the opposition Robert Harley and he admirably makes an impression, showing plenty of confidence and charisma as he proves himself completely comfortable with all of the material.
But it’s Rachel Weisz who makes the biggest impression as her character is the most interesting one of all and Weisz plays her brilliantly. When we are first introduced to Lady Marlborough, it’s clear that she enjoys being the power behind the throne, pulling the strings and telling the Queen exactly what to do, and she initially appears as a haughty, cruel, bullying, abusive and sometimes seductive manipulator who doesn’t take any prisoners but when the tables are turned, with Abigail becoming more of the “bad guy”, we are able to empathise with her a bit more as she struggles to get back to Anne and endures several hardships, including being forced to stay in a brothel for a time – a plot development I wanted to see explored more since it would have emphasized her fall from grace. Weisz sinks her teeth into this memorable character and she has fun with the dark comedy and the manipulative and sly nature of the character.
The Favourite may have been directed by Lanthimos but unlike his other projects, he doesn’t take up any writing duties (the film is instead penned by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara) but even though he didn’t write it, his influence can be felt throughout with the script’s use of his own brand of uniquely black comedy and messed up characters. But having other people take up writing duties works in the film’s favour because unlike Lanthimos’ past work, the story here is more coherent, focusing on the important human drama, and the main characters actually have emotions! They’re not the ultra weird, emotionless robots who often speak in monotone like we saw in The Lobster or The Killing of a Sacred Deer and as this film is based on a true story (with Lanthimos’ unique bleak style thrown in, mind you), there’s much more semblance of a plot and things make a little more sense. The story elements relating to parliamentary procedure and the war with France are sometimes quite confusing but thankfully, those parts are never too “heavy” and they only act as the backdrop to the main drama between the three leads.
Though on the flip side, the film’s story isn’t quite as ambitious as Lanthimos’ other works, flawed as they may be, and the film hits a slump as it moves towards the third act because events aren’t as interesting and things get a little too slow and uncertain. The ending’s a little abrupt, too.
The Favourite excels in the style department as it’s directed with Lanthimos’ signature style; he accompanies the action with that dirge-y classical music that creates an unnerving atmosphere and uses a fisheye lens, quick horizontal camera pans and yet another quirky dance number to ramp up the feeling of weirdness and odd feeling. Another clever technique that he uses is framing the characters close up and from very low angles; this makes the characters seem intimidating and somewhat unnatural and, when captured in slow motion, their grotesque personalities and odd natures are brilliantly highlighted. Elsewhere, the production design is spot on and, rather than a lavish period drama, the huge halls and perpetual darkness/candlelight make the locations seem slightly hellish. And finally, the costuming, make-up and hair is something to behold – the powdered faces and multitude of wigs are naturally very creepy and when it comes to costuming, Rachel Weisz very often gets the best outfits. See below!