Mean and nasty historical drama makes ambition a courtly enterprise
The Favourite (2018)
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Cast: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone
The term “auteur,” in simplest terms, refers to a filmmaker who writes and directs their own works. In broader terms, it defines a filmmaker whose personal style and control over a particular project is unmistakable. Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson are just a few examples of Hollywood auteurs, directors whose entire body of work bears the stamp of a singular, instantly recognizable creative mind. Over the course of a mere four films (Dogtooth, Alps, The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos has established himself as one of the 21st century’s most identifiable auteurs. All his films are limned in the same borderline surreal tone and absurdist black humor. At the same time, it’s difficult to draw a narrative line between his films, which veer from Charlie Kaufman-inspired drama (Alps) to Franz Kafka-esque comedies (The Lobster) to Steven King-like horror thrillers (The Killing of a Sacred Deer). Adding further to the subjective scrum is Lanthimos’ latest, a more-or-less straightforward costume comedy-drama about the British royalty.
Though The Favourite clocks in as Lanthimos’ most accessible film, that doesn’t mean it’s your standard, BBC-approved history lesson. Set in early 18th-century England, the film takes us to the court of Queen Anne (played by longtime British actress Olivia Colman from “The Crown,” “Peep Show” and “Broadchurch”). Sickly and sour-faced, the Queen spends more time hiding in her bedroom than ruling over her country. Her manic-depressive moods are mitigated by her best friend, close companion and trusted advisor Lady Sarah (the always-welcome Rachel Weisz, who appeared with Colman in Lanthimos’ oddball romantic fantasy The Lobster).
Seen from the point of view of a dispassionate observer, it’s evident that Lady Sarah is a master manipulator, steering the Queen’s thoughts toward her own personal benefit. Lady Sarah’s husband is a military commander, currently off fighting the French. Despite the fact that the war is bankrupting the country, Lady Sarah is constantly pushing Anne to pump more money into the military. It’s a direct assist to Sarah’s family fortunes—and as a side benefit, Sarah’s husband could end up killed in battle, leaving her a wealthy widow.
Lady Sarah’s talons run deep. In time it becomes clear that she and the Queen aren’t just BFFs. They’re also longtime lovers. It’s a secret, of course, that remains locked firmly behind closed doors. But it’s also a hint that maybe Sarah does have a heart after all. Her relationship with the Queen is occasionally quite touching and honest. Deep down, maybe she really does love Anne. Or not.
Lady Sarah’s life of secretive trysts and self-serving advice are threatened when her distant cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) shows up at the palace. Poor Abigail has had a rough life. Her drunken father gambled away the family fortune. Now destitute, Abigail has arrived at the palace to beg her cousin for a job. Sensing a threat to her long con, Lady Sarah banishes Abigail to the palace kitchen. But Abigail proves to be as astute a social climber as her cousin. She quickly ingratiates herself to Queen Anne and is soon on her way to replacing Sarah as the Queen’s “favourite.”
The Favourite shares shelf space with Stephen Frears’ 1988 adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons. Though both films share a witty and wicked appreciation of courtly intrigue, The Favourite takes it a step further. As Sarah and Abigail go to war with one another over the attentions and favors of the increasingly feeble Queen, their backstabbing goes from politely mean to violently nasty real quick.
The film’s three-way power struggle is a juicy, soap opera-worthy one. But it’s hard to find someone to root for here. Anne, played with impressive bipolar energy by Colman, is petty and childlike. Sarah is an unapologetically devious maneater (and womaneater). And Abigail, though initially sympathetic, takes to Sarah’s world of self-serving avarice like a duck to water, becoming increasingly awful as the winner-takes-all battle wears on. This savage trio is a wonder to behold. The talented actresses behind it are obviously going at one another with relish and brio. Their command of the film leaves their male costars in the dust. (With the possible exception of Nicholas Hoult, who provides a beautifully catty counterpoint to the ladies as the Earl of Oxford, leader of the Loyal Opposition.)
The lush settings (shot primarily at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire) do provide a delicious, baroque counterpoint to all the bad behavior. Lanthimos lenses many of his shots in fish-eye, spinning and circling his camera around the tight chambers like a goggle-eyed observer. It’s one of his few surreal touches, other than the occasional hint of Fellini-esque debauchery and the film’s dark and multilayered final shot. It’s a major improvement over the somnambulant and seemingly pointless art house “horror” of The Killing of a Sacred Deer. The Favourite has energy to burn. To reiterate, however, that does not mean The Favourite will be the average anglophile’s cup of tea. It’s loopy, long-winded and devolves into increasingly misanthropic spirals. But the wonderfully deadpan humor, scabrous assessment of female power dynamics and well-played lesbian twist on it all further cement Mr. Lanthimos’ reputation as an auteur to watch.