After a brief sojourn into the realm of nonfiction, we are right back in the award season comfort zone of the biopic. This time however, we are heading to early 18th century Great Britain. The much earlier setting isn’t the only notable thing about The Favourite because unlike so many of those other titles (with one notable, albeit for me a decidedly lesser candidate), the film is helmed by one of the most notable and talented filmmakers working today. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos got his start co-directing the 2001 film My Best Friend, but it was his fantastic, haunting, and distinctive 2009 film Dogtooth that put him on the map.
He would follow it up with Alps and before jumping to English language filmmaking with the unusual dystopian black comedy The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer which would return closer to his Dogtooth thematic roots. Plenty of other talented filmmakers have struggled in their transitions to English, but his two previous have been excellent and marked by both his visual inventiveness and the clever darkness of his scripts (co-written with Efthimis Filippou). The promise of his sensibilities was the one thing separating it from the countless period dramas that crop up every year around this time.
The favourite was an intimate and important companion to the leader of a country and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (played by Rachel Weisz and an ancestor of Winston) wields massive power from the role. Serving Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), she’s incredibly controlling and brutally honest, for all intents and purposes managing the Queen and steering her along into line. It’s also a relationship that is far more complex than merely political machinations with Sarah, who has known Anne since they were children, being by her side and called on to be far more intimate than a typical adviser would.
With the nation at war with France and debating between a costly push which Sarah and her allies support and suing for peace, a solution favored by the opposition party led by Robert Harley (as played by Nicholas Hoult), an unexpected kink arrives in the form of Sarah’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). The daughter of a noble who dramatically fell from grace, she uses her cunning to rise from a maid, hazed by those who work around her, and into a position where she is taken under the wing of her cousin.
The three women at the center are all fascinating in their own specific ways. Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script could just as easily made Weisz’s role into have been a standard schemer, that her style of dress is decidedly masculine in comparison to Sarah’s does not go unnoticed, and she can be quite cruel, but it is clear that her focus is first on achieving what she views as best for her country and she does care about Anne on some personal level. Stone on the other hand, plays the more outwardly feminine and kind, yet unlike Sarah, Abigail seems to have no off switch with her gamesmanship.
It’s Colman’s performance though that is the most interesting. There’s the obvious physical difficulty bonus that comes from playing the often sickly queen, but even beyond that. She can be childlike and fickle, yet she is also capable of a great and mature sadness at the weight of everything that life has thrown at her. There are moments where you can feel her seeing through the manipulations and there’s a light in Colman’s eyes that flashes every once in a while when she fills with joy or a moment of understanding, but so quickly fades away. There’s a moment where, after being warned not to eat sweets, she gorges on cake and is forced to vomit. I was reminded of my criticism of certain scenes in Green Book which also find humor in these moments. The difference being, and why they work here, is that The Favourite plays them for dark laughs while establishing Anne as a child and Sarah early on in the way that her often cruel treatment does come from a place of concern and knowledge.
As the first of his films that he did not write, there’s definitely a different tone here from Lanthimos than his prior works. There’s still an absurd sense of humor (and not just from the silly wigs) and one that is frequently cruel to its protagonists, but it is not nearly so this time nor as (for lack of a better word) weird. Instead, it is very obvious that he made his impact felt visually with a very distinctive visual style. The cinematography by Robbie Ryan (Slow West, American Honey) is stunning with its wide panning shots and fluid camera work that utilizes frequently uses fisheye and wide angle lenses to disorient.
The Favourite, despite its great shift in setting, writers, and tone, still maintains the most important part of Lanthimos’s films, the quality. The typical period drama is a stately, well-acted, gorgeously costumed and designed film that is nonetheless rather bland, there’s enough here to elevate it beyond that level and differentiate itself.