The Favourite: What a Wicked Game We Play.
“It’s strange, what desire will make foolish people do.”
Ever think you have the game just mastered? You’ve played your hand perfectly, studied your opponent, predicted each and every one of their possible moves, planned your own accordingly…until you’re washed over with the slow-churned realization that the game you’re playing has actually changed from the one you sat down to, becoming something vastly different while you weren’t quite paying attention.
Yeah, that’s pretty much where The Favourite lives.
Yorgos Lanthimos pulls a nifty pivot from the “Wes Anderson, but everyone’s been hypnotized” vibe of his previous work, and instead brings to the table a game of cat-and-mouse whose surface-level simplicity hides a runnel of rich thematic subtext, just waiting to bubble up from a story of three women all struggling to become the biggest occupants in an increasingly small pond. How fortunate for the audience, then, that it’s a pond stocked with some of the most colorful fish available.
Working from a script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite niftily blends era-appropriate, highborn poshspeake with modern-day nastiness, letting characters slip in and out of their expected personas to consistent and maximum comedic effect. The “aw, rats” that might come along with the realization that Lanthimos’ highly singular directorial trademarks don’t quite map over the stylistic demands that come with a period piece will be short lived: The Favorite is as Yorgos as it gets, with precision-blended character work and a welter of complicated, shifting relationships buried under an insane mound of straight-faced absurdity.
Seriously: The Favourite boasts some of the most confidently underhanded comedic setpieces available in all of 2018, not to mention a third-act twist that arrives with an almost shocking degree of quiet subtlety . If Lanthimos’ previous output can be characterized as the work of a director unafraid to really just beat you about the head and shoulders with an almost jarring level of stylization, The Favourite is marked by a storytelling confidence that has all but freed itself from the need for such. At one point, a single line of dialogue turns the entire film on its head. Changes everything that came before it. Alters everything we thought we had known about the characters, their relationships, and why they’ve sprung up in the ways they have. It arrives without a musical sting. No camera flourish. In fact, it’s delivered from offscreen.
Lanthimos, Davis, and McNamara have, in The Favourite, presented a work fully subsumed in the confidence of its truth. This is a story about the complicated nastiness of love, and it pulls absolutely no punches in its portrayal of said nastiness. Picking up just as the War of the Spanish Succession is (supposed to be) winding down, The Favourite follows the dust-up that ensues when Emma Stone’s socially-clamberous Abigail Hill arrives to disrupt the complex, yet loving relationship between Queen Anne I (Olivia Colman) and her court favorite, Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Her husband busy at the front lines, Sarah enjoys an exceptionally close relationship with the Queen, often ordering around Colman’s sulkingly-compliant monarch with the caustic, loving authority of an older sibling who knows what’s best, even when no one else does. It’s a delicate and complicated balance these two women have struck with one another, and what Abigail slowly comes to realize is that it’s built more on the stable foundations of love, trust, and mutual understanding than she had anticipated.
The film’s ultimate triumph, then, comes with the realization that we had all been looking at it from the wrong angle. The Favourite, in this way, is a portrait shown upside-down, slowly turning itself rightward over the course of its runtime, only revealing its true orientation towards its climax. Were it not for the masterful performances of its three leads, something of this complexity would almost certainly be lost. Stone, Colman, and Weisz bring us characters that arrive as fully-formed human beings, wrought with all the complication and pain and confused emotional needs this might imply. Anne and Sarah enjoy a delightfully unexpected friendship that reeks of venom on its surface, but ultimately shows itself to be the relationship that works best for them. It’s one founded upon an understanding of needs and a mutual fulfilling of emotional roles…and its volatility winds up fully exposed when those foundations are confused for simple power.
Revolving around the gravitational center of this increasingly triangular relationship is a cartoonish coterie of absurd figures, most of them taking the form of male Members of Parliament who continue to circularly butt heads over things like taxation and economics while the women who hold actual sway make decisions as to how they might wield it. Even though Nic Hoult’s Robert Hartley pretty much steals the show any time he shows up, he and his male counterparts are second-rate schemers when stacked up against the labyrinthine machinations of The Favourite’s three leads. Slathered in makeup and decked out in an increasingly-ridiculous series of costumes (“What an outfit.”), the men of The Favourite often simply stand around baffled, wondering confusedly at how they might join the fray while frighteningly more powerful women wage war all around them. (It’s telling that the film’s male characters are often reduced, sputteringly, to physical violence, while the more calculated chess-playery is reserved for the leading ladies.)
Lanthimos’ direction hits a smart cross between his typically-stilted stylistic tendencies and a more visually lush palate that communicates the kind of mountainous gluttony appropriate for the setting. Repeated use of fisheye lens perhaps unsubtly suggests the tiny fishbowl of a world in which these people live — while a very real war rages on and subjects die at a comfortable distance, these people are left to worry about how they’re feeling on a day-to-day basis, free to binge on bright blue cake if the emotional weather report even remotely suggests cloudy skies. Massive rooms are photographed as lovingly as each character’s evolving emotional state, Lanthimos making clever use of the spaces both within and without each one to create a world that seems almost stifling in its emptiness. This is achieved through the contrast of production designer Fiona Crombie’s wonderfully detailed sets, and with the invaluable aid of Robbie Ryan’s gorgeous available-light cinematography: When they’re not surrounded by a ridiculous amount of glittering gold filigree, these characters feel crushed by an empty darkness.
In just about every way, The Favourite finds Lanthimos and his crew operating at the height of command of their visual craft, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that this craft is put in service of a top-tier script, brought to life with next-level performances by three massively talented actors. If that sounds like a heaping helping of praise, it is: It’s pretty hard to find fault with The Favourite, which only continues to reveal its depth, the more time one spends with it post-viewing. It’s a film that rewards careful reflection, while basically being ripe for any number of drinking games at the exact same time. Vulgarity and thoughtfulness live next door to each other in The Favourite, and it turns out that with Yorgos Lanthimos behind the camera, these unlikely neighbors throw one hell of a party together.
Oh, and also…
- Despite its super rewarding and thoughtful emotional content, this movie is a straight-up giggler from start to finish.
- I wasn’t kidding, either. The dance sequence in this film is one of the most absurdly hilarious things I’ve ever seen in my life, and is definitely my Comedy Moment of 2018.
- Hi, Rachel Weisz? This is Hollywood. You’re in every movie now. We need you in all of the movies. Thanks.