When entering a theater to watch a period drama a certain set of expectations come attached: lavish costumes, elaborate makeup, steadfast performances from trained thespians, hints of seduction and oh so much devilry. The new movie from Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favorite, revels in all of the above, and while the costumes are magnificent, the actors are brilliant and the production design makes you dream of the time of horse-drawn carriages, what makes it stand out from traditional fare is it’s lyrical, absurdist send-up of the historical figures at its core with an arsenal of black humor, biting sexuality and a gleeful, unabashed use of the word “c**t.”
The politics of power is usually a man’s game – or at least has been depicted as one in the movies. We so often see leading actors giving mighty speeches about power and the thirst for it, doing anything they can to secure it. We’ve seen that story in tons of period flicks across the decades – but I assure you, you haven’t seen one like The Favourite. Centering on three women in 1708 – Anne (Olivia Colman), Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) – this refreshingly unhinged tale tells the stories of how these real historical figures fought, schemed and seduced their way into power positions, mostly among each other, proving (often hilariously) no one is immune to the lure of advantage.
Anne, the Queen of Britain, is sick, insecure and over-dramatic, crying into the night at the pain of her afflicting gout as servants massage her legs. Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, is her favourite – her closest companion in all matters. Sarah doesn’t hold back, telling Anne if she’s gone too far, if she’s looking fat or if her makeup makes her look like a badger. Anne usually listens and agrees. It’s easy to hate Sarah for her direct, blunt, coldness – being nigh abusive to this sickly woman. Then enters Abigail Hill, Sarah’s cousin, who is far humbler and more amiable, and soon she starts to show a naughtier, more goal-oriented side, shoving out Sarah as Anne’s favourite. While Sarah tries to keep herself in the Queen’s life by doubling down on the callousness, coyly coming after Abigail like a python, Abigail works from the shadows, seducing a man of the court, and even Anne herself, after she discovers her and Sarah are having a secret love affair, and deciding to take advantage of the queen’s loneliness. There are countless sources on this whole relationship (though the love affair is probably just for the movie), but it’s just as juicy and scandalous as it sounds and it’s enough to make me want to pick up a book and read into their stories more. Or, you know, maybe there’s a shorter, more convenient documentary out there…
All three actress are at the top of their games here. Colman is a revelation, capturing Anne’s inner and emotional turmoil by weaving between crazed basket case that demands sympathy and raging lunatic that inspires laughter. Weisz is commanding as Sarah, a dominating force who will literally grab the queen by the throat and come off as a total villain, but delivering on the wit and pathos just enough to gain your sympathy by the end. Then there’s Stone, who perfectly blends her character’s soft, innocent surface demeanor with a lingering sexual deviancy and thirst for status. By the end you will think of these characters in a much different light than when you went in, a rousing success on behalf of the script from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. It’s a triumphant trio of magnificent performances and each one deserves Oscar consideration, and surely each will get their due attention.
Anyone who has seen Lanthimos’ past work – recently The Lobster and Killing of a Sacred Deer – knows he doesn’t approach themes like love, morality, death and everything in between in normal ways. This movie is a masterclass in his usage of unique camera angle – with fish-eye lenses giving certain scenes an almost reality-TV feel that makes you feel like a fly on the wall, and low angle shots giving a certain stature to these figures. As pompous as I may sound, he’s an auteur doing his best work here, and among the stirring production elements satirizes the whole thing by showcasing the immaturity and childishness of these affluent individuals. Behind the oil paintings they are party whores — racing ducks and throwing oranges at naked jesters and looking to fuck anything that moves. Lanthimos’ movies, no matter the writers, always get big laughs via both straight-faced, surrealist humor – like here when Weisz starts dancing with a man at an elegant ball, and it turns into a full on, super serious boogie of modern dance moves. But then there’s brief glimpses of pure, physical comedy, like when Nicholas Hoult’s Robert Hartley, shoves Abigail down a hill. My audience was laughing just as much here as you would find at a mainstream comedy, which speaks to the execution from the actors and Lanthimos’ eye for when something needs to be funny or deadly serious.
Try as I might, Lanthimos’ movies must be experienced, not read about. Whether he’s behind the script, or he’s working from the incredible work of Davis and McNamara, all his movies feel like a clear, singular vision straight from his bloodstream. The Favourite is no different, and it’s his best work to date that utilizes his knack for unique visuals, black humor and all with a tour de force cast in the lead. Everything in this movie may not historically accurate, and as a period drama it’s not immune from the sensation it feels an hour longer than it really is, but this is a always engaging examination of women fighting for power in arenas that often pushed them to the background, and in the final, oddly haunting moment proves that no matter who wins and loses, we’re all someone’s subjects. I know that sounds a bit bleak, but trust me, there’s lots of rabbits and fun to be had before then.