Since making a name for himself with the sublime oddity that is Dogtooth back in 2009, Yorgos Lanthimos has continued to make films that push his audience out of their comfort zone. His follow-up, Alps, remained just as stubbornly in his own world, but ever since he has gradually begun to find a middle-ground between his insular worlds and that of wider commercial recognition. As many people have stated by now, The Favourite is easily his most accessible film to date, and it is possibly also his best so far.
Fun is not exactly a word you’d usually associate with Lanthimos’ disorientating style, yet that is the only way to describe this wickedly funny 18th century farce. Rachel Weisz rightfully labelled this a cross between All About Eve and Mean Girls, and it is led by fantastic performances from three actresses who ravish Deborah Davis’ and Tony McNamara’s script. For the first time Lanthimos is not given any writing credits and as a result his characters seem more human and relatable than ever before.
The Favourite is based on the true story of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and her ongoing relationship with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Weisz) whose, soon to arrive cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone) looks set to change the power dynamics in the estate. England are at war with France, and Sarah is the one pulling the political strings behind the scenes while Anne battles with her childish mood swings and declining mental health.
Sarah revels in the cut throat parliamentary games between Prime Minister Godolphin (James Smith) and leader of the opposition Harley (Nicholas Hoult). She is less prepared for Abigail’s presence, a former aristocrat who has lost her status and is employed to work in the scullery. But it isn’t long before she has made herself indispensable to both Sarah and Anne. She may hold far loftier ambitions than a few simple promotions and the competitive nature of both Sarah and Abigail quickly comes to the fore.
What The Favourite never becomes is a just a bitch-fest between the three women, despite the dark-hearted fun each one is having in the midst of their power struggle. In fact, it’s the men who are frequently made to look the fools as the women merely see them as tools to be used and manipulated at will. Who they are and what their motivations may be slowly start to reveal themselves once the layers of their personalities are slowly peeled back. The writing is razor sharp but it’s bolstered by superb performances from the three leads.
The various award organisations will have to decide who to define as lead and supporting, but pointless ceremonies aside, it is almost impossible to choose one over the other. Stone has more of a reputation for her comedic chops but shows she has dramatic talent to burn. Weisz has turned into one of best actresses around, her confident and assured delivery the perfect fit for the Duchess. Olivia Colman is perhaps one of the most underrated performers from these isles, and rather than making a mockery of Anne’s mental illness, she creates an empathetic character that reveals her true fragility.
While Lanthimos’ has made a film that will appeal to the masses, the rude and disorderly conduct of his characters aren’t too different from his usual oddball creations. The language is far removed from the typical bodice-restrained speech, with use of the c-word turned into a delightful work of art. Behind the societal façades and pleasantries, the ruling classes are shown as being as disorderly and poisonous as those they lord it over.
Both Hatfield House and Hampton Court Palace were used as locations and DP Robbie Ryan’s use of fisheye and wide lenses creates a warped sense of reality in a place of pure grandeur. This technique adds to the modernist feel of a film that despite being set in the 1700s is still tangibly connected to the present day. The opulent dresses may seem as if they are of the period but they aren't a million miles away from the haute couture seen in recent catwalk shows.
For all the laughter The Favourite raises, it is also a tragedy, and like the very best comedies it offers some sympathy for the demise of people being used for our entertainment. The ending steps firmly back into the dark, surrealist territory we have become used to from Lanthimos and it will no doubt leave people at odds about its meaning. However, the wretched behaviour is unmistakable and it shows even all the money in the world can’t buy you class.
The Favourite will be released nationwide in UK cinemas on January 1st 2019.