EXPECTATIONS: A different change of pace for director Yorgos Lanthimos.
REVIEW: Idosyncratic director Yorgos Lanthimos has been garnering quite a reputation over the past decade. Best known for his films like the faux-dystopian comedy/drama Dogtooth, the pitch black romantic comedy The Lobster and the revenge fable The Killing of a Sacred Deer, his work has always explored the dark nature of the human condition, especially through an uncompromising and almost absurdist lens.
Since then, he has gone on to make The Favourite, a film project that marks many firsts for Lanthimos. Firstly, it is the first film where Lanthimos had no input in the script, as it is written by Deborah Davis (making her film screenwriting debut) and Australian filmmaker Tony McNamara, best known for contributing to various Australian shows eg. The Secret Life of Us and currently Doctor Doctor; and directing films like The Rage in Placid Lake and Ashby.
Secondly, it is his first film that is based on a true story; which is about the behind-the-scenes politics between two cousins jockeying to be court favourites during the reign of Queen Anne in the early 18th century. Finally, it is his first film that exclusively revolves around female leads (although his underrated film, Alps comes close) and female gender dynamics. Will the change of pace of The Favourite prove to be a benefit to Yorgos’ evolving filmmmaking prowess or will it be a hindrance, indicating that he should go back to his proven formula?
The film starts off in the early 18th century, during a war where England is fighting France. A frail (both physically and emotionally) Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) occupies the throne, and her close friend (and lover) Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) governs the country in her stead while tending to Anne’s ill health, mercurial temper and her tragic past.
When a new servant, the indigent Abigail (Emma Stone), arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah. Sarah takes Abigail under her wing, and Abigail sees a chance to return to her aristocratic roots.
This critic has said that he had found many of Lanthimo’s films incredibly funny because of the absurdist look at the darkest facades of human nature. So it comes as quite a shock to see that The Favourite is not only the funniest of all of Lanthimo’s films, but also the most accessible and even the most remarkably human.
The biggest signal that Lanthimos sends in order to show that The Favourite is going to be much different than his prior films is the script. Lines upon lines feel like they’re uttered and screamed at light speed in comparison and all of it is pure gold. The script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara is not just naughty, but nefarious in its comedy and its drama. Every line of dialogue is felt with seething emotion and the script is not above coarse language; it even comes up with new terms and brings old terms back into the mainstream.
But the script also provides ample and complex characterizations for the three female leads that never feel exploitative (the one prominent moment of female nudity was Emma Stone‘s idea), cliched, condescending or tone-deaf. Queen Anne may at first seem to be quite clueless and petulant, but it all comes from a dark and tragic past that involves many deaths of her loved ones, transposed into her many pet rabbits, which adds a surrealistic feel to the film and also a plausible visual shorthand.
The solid rock of the three, Lady Sarah may at first seem controlling, mean-spirited and brutally honest, but it may not all stem from lust for power but other factors like social standing and even love. The outsider of the three, Abigail may seem like a survivor with a positive disposition and a optimistic view, given her complicated circumstances but her motives and her past actions may signal otherwise. But all three have one thing in common: they are all are saddled with a dramatic backbone; being that they are trapped with the cards they are dealt with.
The female roles are so well-written that the male roles end up peripheral and insignificant, but Lanthimos and the screenwriters turn that detriment in a positive; making the male roles entertaining punchlines that stand out more than they ever could if they were full-bodied characters. With full-blown wigs, splashes of make-up and moments of flamboyant, yet hilariously human behaviour, Harley and Masham are both uproarious caricatures, ably played by Nicholas Hoult and Joe Alwyn, who are clearly having the time of the lives in playing caricatures that are both manipulative and manipulated.
Since the characters and the script are both unhinged, so is the filmmaking. The crisp editing by Yorgos Mavropsaidis is surprisingly fast-paced (in comparison to prior contributions of Lanthimo’s films) in that it adds to the timing and punch of the humour as well as helping to subvert genre tropes; the genre being the period drama. Often, these stories would rely on wide-angle shots, sterile compositions and lack of dynamic camera movement in order for the audience to witness the opulent settings in all their majesty. But in the case of The Favourite, lensed by acclaimed cinematographer Robbie Ryan, the camerawork is free-flow, intrusive and almost voyeuristic that it adds to the debauchery of the humour and drama.
In the case of the humour, many of the shots (showing the brilliant set design by Alice Felton) are reminiscent of CCTV security footage (especially shots set in the kitchen with the servants) in that it accentuates the humour and the politics of the film by giving it a contemporary edge. In the case of the drama, the use of the fish-eye lens provides a compelling juxtaposition in that it captures the entirety of the vast settings and yet somehow, adds a sense of claustrophobia, in which adds thematic power to the lead characters being stuck in their positions in life.
The sparse use of makeup (headed by Beverly Benda) and costume design (by the talented Sandy Powell) also add to the film, in the way of contrasting characters via gender politics (eg. the women are mostly makeup free, in the way that it conveys their roles as emotionally honest; while the men are caked in makeup to the point that they come off as fake) and even complimenting the acting via physicality (eg. how Queen Anne walks to and from the hallway, showing her emotionally delicate state) and even the colours of the costumes play a role in how the characters’ natures are revealed eg. how Abigail is dressed in black-and-white at first, throwing the dichotomy of right and wrong down on its head; to being caked in makeup in the third act. The natural lighting (sourced only from the Sun and candles) compliments the voyeuristic cinematography, adding a sense of beauty, surrealism and a sense of dramatic exposure that peels away the layers of the characters.
And just like the characters that make the most out of their situations, the three leads sink their teeth into these roles with gusto, competing against each other in the story as well as complimenting each other on-screen. Olivia Colman has always been a fantastic dramatic actress as well as a skilled comedienne, but in The Favourite, she is given a role that is able to combine the skill sets together to create an impressive performance that really could’ve been disastrous if executed poorly. If the performance was seen as too sulky, it could’ve come off as annoying; and yet if the performance was too brooding, it would have been problematic in terms of the filmmaking approach that Lanthimos had set out, but thankfully Colman strikes a perfect balance and makes Queen Anne a compellingly flawed human being.
Rachel Weisz is the most established actress out of the three, so her performance is less of a surprise in comparison. But that does not take away the power of her work, since she makes Lady Sarah an entertainingly and compellingly headstrong, acerbically honest and prominent figure here that grounds the film from going further into farce. But the biggest surprise here is Emma Stone. Saddled with the least acting experience, being the lone American in the cast and being motivated with something to prove, Stone has the hardest role here. Many of her projects in her filmmography have involved her playing characters with sunny dispositions, but in the case of The Favourite, Stone is given a character that subverts that character trait to its advantage and she expands her acting range incredibly well (while adopting a well-executed English accent), especially when she reveals her true nature, particularly towards the male characters.
Overall, The Favourite is not only one of the funniest films of the year, but it is one of the best films of the year, period. With its brilliantly acerbic and dramatic script, a trio of wonderful performances from its actresses, hilarious caricatures from its actors, a strong thematic and dramatic backbone, wonderful production design contributions and strikingly off-kilter cinematography, this is my frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar. It’s absolutely brilliant.
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Cast: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, James Smith, Mark Gatiss
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenwriters: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara