Yorgos Lanthimos, Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz deliver one of the Best Films of the Year.
DIRECTED BY YORGOS LANTHIMOS/2018
With his last three features, including his new one, director Yorgos Lanthimos has slowly but surely seen each new project open up more and more doors for viewers to embrace his quirky, yet uniquely powerful style and voice. His most recent film, The Favourite, may be his most accessible yet, as well as his most complex. Based on a true story, set in 18th-century England, this is the first mainstream film that he did not write. This script comes to us via Deborah Davis (her debut) and Tony McNamara (Ashby), yet it retains all of Lanthimos’ gallows humor, quirks, and subversive commentary that he included in previous films The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. In the hands of its three leads, his latest film, The Favourite should be in the running for Best Picture of the Year at the next Academy Awards.
Clearly a period piece, Lanthimos turns even the traditional approaches to such films on their collective heads. While the dresses and attire look appropriate to the time period, the director and costume designer Sandy Powell made sure to use modern fabrics such as denim and leather, among others, to achieve a contemporary feel, without pulling the story into a modern setting. This approach finds its way into other aspects of the film such as the choreography of some of the dances being held at the Queen’s residence, as well as the way that the two competing political parties depicted in the film are dressed. Lanthimos discusses in a video interview his desire to use black and white as the primary colors for the actor’s costumes in the film, yet this is approach is abandoned when depicting the politics of the story, or when distinguishing individuals into their various caste-like systems representative of the social pecking order of the day. While this is England, the political colors that were chosen for the competing political parties are very much a mirror to America’s typical red and blue distinction for Republicans and Democrats.
The Favourite is a uniquely subversive film where the each of the female characters are seen in the roles that are typically taken by men, especially in similar period pieces set in the 18th Century.
Lanthimos’ use of a fish-eyed lens, executed perfectly by director of photography Robbie Ryan, to create fluid movement of the gaze of the camera, as well as shooting most of the scenes in extremely-wide lens achieves a uniquely claustrophobic feel for the characters who inhabit a very large, and luxurious, mansion. This helps create an ideal landscape for all of the story’s themes to come crashing in on each of three main characters who are engaged in a power-struggle, and love triangle, for the ages.
The film’s main story is of Queen Anne (Colman), a deeply wounded soul, who is tasked with making decisions about a war with France, as well as how to tax her subjects to pay for it all. Her main support is from Lady Sarah (Weisz), a friend since childhood, a confidant, and her secret lover. Lady Sarah, in many ways, is the one truly making the political decisions that need to be made, or else influencing the Queen’s mind towards the political positions she should champion. The politicians know this, and in order to keep Lady Sarah’s favor, they in turn have handed her the power their titles truly hold. Weisz plays Lady Sarah as a very sharp, shrewd, and savvy character, who will not hesitate to throw anyone to the wolves if they happen to get in her way. She also projects a warmth and likability, especially seen in her worry for her husband who is off fighting in the war, and of course we witness this in her private moments with Queen Anne.
When Lady Sarah’s estranged cousin, Abigail (Stone) arrives at the Queen’s estate, covered in mud, asking for a job, Lady Sarah offers her a position with the servants. What Lady Sarah doesn’t realize is that Abigail desires to climb out of her lowly station in society, caused by her father’s actions that sold her into prostitution. She longs to reclaim her family’s former aristocratic title, which would put her on par with her cousin Lady Sarah. It just happens that what Lady Sarah sees as a lowly girl only fit to be a servant may in fact be her biggest threat as Abigail’s drive far exceeds even Lady Sarah’s own ambition.
Eventually, Abigail is threatening to bump her cousin completely out of the picture as Queen Anne’s “favourite”, challenging to be the Queen’s confidant, adviser, friend, and lover. The way in might just be bunnies! Abigail shrewdly makes a political alliance with the leader of the minority party in Parliament, a man named Harley (Nicholas Hoult-About a Boy, Max Max: Fury Road), whereby she will help him change the Queen’s tax policy in exchange for manipulating the situation so that she is able to regain her title and lifestyle.
This is a unique film in that the three leads are all women, with there being no real main male character. The Favourite is a better film because of it. Each of these talented actresses give career best performances. While both Rachel Weisz (The Lobster, Disobedience) and Emma Stone (La La Land, The Help) have previously won an Oscar, The Favourite may be the film that finally gives Olivia Colman (The Lobster, The Crown) hers. She gives an extremely complex portrayal that handles the full range of the human experience, sometimes in a matter of seconds within the same scene. She is hilariously petty one moment, and then strong and terrifying the next. Her interactions with Weisz are powerfully complementary, with each demonstrating a strong chemistry that works equally well whether their characters are in conflict with one another, or whether they are intimately connected.
Emma Stone demonstrates that she will not be resting on her laurels after winning Oscar gold, as she gives her best performance to date, embodying every aspect of her manipulative and driven character. She even challenged the director to let her push the envelope of how her character is portrayed, as Stone gives the most raw and vulnerable visual performance she has ever given on screen, without sacrificing any of the strength her character possesses….especially when she is seemingly at her lowest point.
The Favourite is a uniquely subversive film where the each of the female characters are seen in the roles that are typically taken by men, especially in similar period pieces set in the 18th Century. The women are the ones with the power. They are the ones who are smart, funny, witty, scheming, and out-strategizing their opponents with shrewd power-plays as they play the political long game. The men here occupy the stereotypical female roles in traditional films of this sort. They are the ones who are all dressed up in heels, make-up, and wigs, in extremely contemporary versions of the classic British parliamentary look, while being easily pushed aside by the women who are doing the real heavy lifting. While the male characters talk politics and war, and occupy the positions of power in Parliament, according to the patriarchal society of the 18th century, they mostly spend their time entertaining themselves with duck races, and stripping down to nothing while their fellow gentlemen peers pelt them with tomatoes. They frolic and gossip, throw temper-tantrums, and worry a lot about how they look. The women, meanwhile, are out shooting guns, getting drunk, having sexual conquests and leaving scorned lovers in their wake, all while working toward their own personal goals and agendas with driving ambition.
While some might see some of this as a modern-day, politically correct, female-empowerment film, it is really an amazing story based on true events, that took place at a time when this type of dynamic didn’t really exist. For these three women, however, they were able to make it happen in spite of the times they lived in. In this way, Yorgos Lanthimos is able to use this true-to-life juxtaposition of expected societal gender-roles to deftly deliver a wickedly powerful film that combines political intrigue, personal ambition, sex, power, social class, gender-roles, pain, loss, tragedy, and sharp comedy that feels strikingly contemporary, even with an 18th-century setting. He also is able to work in nods to both Lobsters and Deer from his previous two films, for those astute enough to catch them.
The Favourite should rightly serve notice to all of the major film studios that gender stereotypes, as they have existed in film for decades, are outdated and over with. Women and men are equal partners, performers, and collaborators. The Favourite demonstrates this beautifully as these three wonderful leads bring to life vivid and complex characters, while Yorgos Lanthimos’ vision pulls it all together, with the help of his talented cast and crew. What they have created together is one of the most compelling films of the year.