Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Emma Stone, Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz
Period pieces can be a real drag. Sure the costumes and makeup are award-worthy and the settings are picturesque, but ultimately many historical stories and renditions of 17th-18th century fiction are devoid of substance and don’t give any reason not to read the books instead. Barry Lyndon and The Age of Innocence are a couple of notable exceptions but many of them are an absolute bore.
Not The Favourite though. Through Yorgos Lanthimos’ signature oddities and a script of characters with actual diversity and intrigue, this film towers over so many other of the smaller productions to be released in 2018.
It’s 1708 and Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) continues her reign over England during their war with the French. There’s little to be liked about her—she’s moody, mad with power (not to the point of political dangerousness, but still achingly annoying) and most don’t much like her presence, with the exception of Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), her close friend and confidant. This bond between the two women is interrupted when Sarah’s impoverished cousin Sarah Hill, portrayed by the wonderful Emma Stone, arrives in a mud-clad dress one afternoon, seeking out work from her relative.
In pure Lanthimos fashion, the dialogue and delivery is straightforward, blunt, and very revealing (albeit not to the extent of Lanthimos’ previous two films). But as we follow the two younger women in their relationships with the Queen in what would become a bitter rivalry, we learn there’s a lot more going on underneath; things that the history books may have left out, things that may be open to historical debate and interpretation.
The performances in The Favourite are that of a high order. Emma Stone delivers her single greatest performance as a young woman with a wretched past attempting to climb the social ladder to justify her existence. Rachel Weisz plays the selfish cousin attempting to continue her mutual sweetness with the Queen in order to get what she wants. And although we never learn too much about the Queen herself, Olivia Colman gives justice to the melancholic old woman, almost to the point that we sympathize with her sharp tongue.
As expected, the cinematography beautifully encapsulates the English countryside and manors, with a wide depth of field, making the audience feel all but sucked into this catty and aggrieved world. Lanthimos provides us with a multitude of tracking shots that follow the characters through their endeavors and psychological descents. The music is as intense and disturbing as it was in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and highlights the characters’ inner conflict. Many stills paired with the music could be very reminiscent of Barry Lyndon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if over the years people drew parallels between the two, seeing similarities about the underlying miseries of high-class European society.
I’ve personally seen the last three of Lanthimos’ films in theaters and have loved every single one of them. I understand their inaccessibility to mainstream audiences, and concur that they’re not for everyone. But I believe anybody who is interested in both thematic and technical analysis in film can draw a certain appreciation to his dedication to the filmmaking craft.