Synopsis – In early 18th century England, a frail Queen Anne occupies the throne and her close friend, Lady Sarah, governs the country in her stead. When a new servant, Abigail, arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah.
My Take – If I could pick two films from the last decade which I found both weird and inventive equally, it would be The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), both helmed by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos—the man who swept onto the world stage with the striking Oscar-nominated Dogtooth in 2009. While The Lobster was unique and cynically funny, his 2017 follow up was surprisingly disturbing, creative and quite somber, marking a display of how impressive of a filmmaker Lanthimos is.
While he known to be able to implement his creativity and filming techniques to cause discomfort and disorientation, his third English language film provokes a unfamiliar sensation, something unseen openly in his previous films, i.e. making an effort to be genuinely fun. An important factor considering how this is the first feature he has directed which has not been written by him, but instead by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. Which is not necessarily a bad thing as the film ends up being good in exactly the ways you would expect it to be. Yes, this film mostly forgoes the Lanthimos template of his sinister, vexing, and twisted spirit, and instead a more whimsical, comedic and less tragic motion picture.
And when I say, the film is more cheer and juvenile than his previous work, I’m not inferring that director Lanthimos loses his infamous psychologically poignant gift in this, I’m just inferring that it’s done in a much more subtle way, hidden by cynical humor, hereby making it more accessible for a wider audience than his previous films. I personally did not expect to have such a blast watching this film, as not only is it hilarious and gratifying at the same time, but the chemistry shared between the three female leads is just too much to fun to watch.
The story is set in 1708 at a time when the Britain was at war with the French, and follows Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), who sits on the throne but does not rule. Distracted by grief, idleness, and periodic bouts of gout, she treats her opulent palace as a macabre playground, racing ducks, caring for seventeen rabbits that represent her failed pregnancies, and stuffing her face with cake.
Though Anne is the sovereign of the land, the actual agency of rule has been largely and unofficially devolved to her close confidante and secret lover, Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough. Sarah is strong-willed, acerbically witty, and acts as an intermediary between the Queen and her Parliament, represented on one political side by Robert Harley (Nicolas Hoult), a primped and bewigged Member of Parliament who would destroy her if he knew the truth, and on the other by her trusty ally, Sidney Godolphin (James Smith). However, things begin to change with the arrival of Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), Sarah’s poverty-stricken cousin, who turns up looking for employment and covered in what turns out not to be mud.
Playing upon some of Sarah’s family’s shame, Abigail is given a job as a maid, but when she sees the Queen’s gout-ridden agony, she seizes the opportunity to ingratiate herself. A little soothing balm made from forest herbs and she’s appointed a lady-in-waiting while also managing to gain the attention of Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), the first Baron Masham. It is not long, however, until Abigail reveals a craftier, more calculating side, which causes her to clash with Sarah for the Queen’s affections, and come up with a certain willingness to go as far as possible to achieve her goals.
Here, director Yorgos Lanthimos delivers his best film yet – one that works as both a historical drama and a sex comedy that features beautiful cinematography courtesy of Robbie Ryan and gorgeous costume design courtesy of Sandy Powell. Enthralling from the very beginning and bursting with enthusiasm, this endlessly funny period piece, mixed with a ravishing love triangle, is director Lanthimos at his most accessible, all while maintaining the sarcastic social commentary and absurdist tone that made him such a phenomenon. Despite not having had a hand in writing the screenplay, here, director Lanthimos seems to be in his wheelhouse, crafting a stirring yet (darkly) humorous rumination on humankind’s innate desire to possess power, whether it be political, sexual, or anything in between.
While characters fight about war and policy in the film, I can’t honestly say I know anything more about those elements of its history now than I did going in. And that is precisely by design: the film is not a film about history, but a film that plucks some shadowy figures out of history and it uses them to stage a devilish comedy of power struggles. In this film, everything like flattery, friendship, feasts, companionship, sex etc. are just part of a giant chess game to see who will hold the allegiance of the woman who helms an empire.
Like a few other films released last year, this is a film about women who have realized that the world is stacked against them and decided to simply shove the mostly useless men around them to the sides of the frame. In Anne’s court, men can be advantageous pawns, but to ask them to do much more than bicker, race ducks, and play stupid games will lead to nothing good.
Sarah has known this a long time, and Anne knows, too. What the queen realizes even more is something that could serve as a general thesis for director Lanthimos’s films more generally: Love, if it exists between humans, is never untainted. It’s mixed with people wanting things like power, position, prestige, or just to not be alone. Anything that looks like love in director Lanthimos’s worlds always comes with some kind of ulterior motive. Adding to the sense of unpredictability is the film’s cheeky reversal of traditional gender roles, here, the men are frivolous and ineffective in wigs and heels that a man must look pretty, a dandyish Harley advises his friend Masham in his quest to win Abigail’s heart and the women serious and authoritative in waistcoats and leather armor. Combined with the film’s lesbian love triangle, it’s a startlingly fresh approach, and relatively historically accurate to boot.
The film’s underlying themes of casual cruelty and petty jealousy among the idle aristocracy are more familiar, and the film does spin its wheels a bit late in the second act as the histrionic rivalries start to cool, until director Lanthimos once again sets the audience reeling with a sinister, psychologically loaded final shot. His approach here is modern, disorienting, and reliant on dizzying, heavy-handed flourishes: like the camera uses fish eye and wide shots that encompass the entire grand scenery and decor of the castle. He even occasionally combines techniques, like in a shot of Abigail furiously stomping down the long hallway to the Queen’s bedchamber that utilizes a nauseating pan. Like a shark, the film is always moving, and always on the verge of all-out frenzy.
All of that innovating and beguiling experience could never have been made possible without an incredibly solid script, whose segmented structure and whimsically titled chapters make the audience anticipate, with an expectant smile, what kind of wicked schemes and betrayals will come next. While it is riveting and lively until two thirds well into the plot, some of the viewers might be left disappointed at how it becomes hopeless and dark during the final act. I personally believe the sudden change of pace, however, is deliberate and calculated, leading to a visually unforgettable ending scene, as each of the characters finally realize the inescapable consequences of their extravagant behaviors.
Adding to all this another compelling reason to watch this film would be for Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone, who turn in some of the best performances of their careers. While Weisz is exceptionally brilliant as always, and Stone flawlessly executes her English accent along with the most dramatic change in temperament and personality without taking one false step, it is Colman who steals the spotlight, through her mesmerizing performance. She’s not written as a likable character, except maybe if you feel sorry for her. But there’s something regal beneath her slowly disintegrating facade, something that makes her worst moments, the cake-eating and the purple-faced screaming fits, even more jarring by contrast.
She takes credit for almost every one of the most iconic moments of the film, which are several, through her delicious tantrums and hilarious excesses, but most notably, through a few long, mathematically precise close-ups, during which her expression changes so subtly, yet so richly, that she conveys an extensive array of emotions, disarming the viewer with desperate loneliness and sadness. Even Nicholas Hoult, James Smith and Joe Alwyn turn in excellent supporting turns. On the whole, ‘The Favourite’ is a splendid and massively entertaining historical period comedy-drama that is not only eccentric but also witty and delightful.
Directed – Yorgos Lanthimos
Rated – R
Run Time – 119 minutes