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The Favourite

We got a weird one tonight, folks. But for a Yorgos Lanthimos film, it’d be weird if it wasn’t weird.

Lanthimos is the same bizarre writer/director/producer who previously gave us Dogtooth, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. He typically deals in such outlandish satirical allegories that I could never have expected him to make a costume drama. So here’s The Favourite, a costume drama that could only have been made by Lanthimos.

In his previous films, Lanthimos has shown a stiffly surreal manner of writing and directing dialogue, and that kind of absurdly heightened formality lends itself alarmingly well to a black comedy set in the court of 18th-century England. What’s more, the fish-eye lens photography, the whip-fast camera pans, the extreme close-ups, the strategically garish use of slo-mo, and the disjointed score all clash with the opulent costumes and lavish production design. The end result is that everything looks perfectly normal, yet feels indescribably off-kilter.

I could also point to the dance sequences, which seamlessly loop modern dance moves into ballroom dances. It’s a bizarre anachronism played totally straight, but in a movie that mocks the rich nobility for their shallow and opulent pastimes, it totally works. It’s not like the scene is any less bizarre than the slo-mo sequence of nobles betting on duck races. (You heard me.)

Anyway, the plot mostly focuses on a feud between two cousins. In one corner is Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), the right-hand woman and sometime concubine to Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). In the other corner is Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), born to nobility before her father’s gambling debts cast her into poverty. After growing up on the street, she comes to the palace asking her cousin for a job. What follows is your basic All About Eve scenario, chronicling Abigail’s return to nobility against Sarah’s fall into ruin. There are a few important twists on the formula, however.

First and foremost, there’s the Queen as arbiter between the two. Put simply, she’s a basket case. She’s old, she’s fat, she needs to be carted around in a wheelchair, her health is failing, and she’s carrying the trauma of 17 (!!!) dead children. She even has a pet rabbit for each child lost, thus turning rabbits into a symbol for death and personal tragedy. A neat little subversion of a traditional symbol for fertility and new life, but I digress.

The bottom line is, the Queen wants to be adored by her subjects while remaining above and apart from them. She thinks she’s fat and ugly, and desperately wants somebody who can convince her otherwise. She values her solitude, but desperately needs company. Put it all together, and there’s no possible way to tell what she’s going to do at any given time. More importantly, she needs an adviser who knows how to placate and guide her, or the country will be run into the ground.

Therefore, it’s easy to think that the Queen’s closest adviser is actually the nation’s true monarch. Until, of course, the queen herself hears any such implication and decides to destroy everything just to prove she can. Or until somebody finds a way to appeal directly to the queen or her ego. While both are of course difficult, Abigail is ideally placed to circumvent her cousin and get straight to the queen like nobody else.

It’s crucial to note that Sarah has firmly established herself as the Bitch In Charge. She takes no shit, gives no quarter, and spares no feelings. She’s firm enough to give the Queen direction, sharp enough to run interference against the heads of state who encroach on Her Majesty’s privacy, and she always gives Queen Anne the blunt yet well-intentioned truth that the Queen needs to hear.

By comparison, Abigail shows a diabolically subtle knack for wheedling her way into anyone’s good graces and telling people whatever it is they want to hear. So of course Queen Anne favors Abigail’s comforting dishonesty to Sarah’s curt pragmatism. But this leads to another problem: For Sarah, her position at the queen’s right hand is an end in itself, and she’s good at what she does. For Abigail, the position is only a means to an end — she only ever planned on becoming the queen’s maid so she can get back into high society. So, what if Abigail wins? What if she is actually tasked with keeping queen and country on the rails without Sarah’s experience or guiding hand? Can she develop into such a capable political strategist before the time comes? For that matter, how much do either of the cousins truly love their queen, and to what extent are they acting purely for their own selfish interests? Only time will tell.

The lion’s share of praise for this movie has been heaped on the leading trinity of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone, and rightly so. All three are awesome. But the supporting cast is no less solid. Nicholas Hoult is a pompous delight as the opportunistic leader of the opposition party, while Mark Gatiss has a brief yet welcome turn as Sarah’s husband and the leader of Britain’s military. See, Britain is at war with France (Before the Great War, when were they ever not?) and Britain is currently winning. Hoult’s character wants Britain to end the war now, sparing the landowners from the cost of prolonging the war further. Sarah wants to keep the war going, beating France into further submission to gain more leverage for the peace talks. The Queen just wants everyone to be happy, and Abigail couldn’t give a rat either way, unless she can somehow use the political conflict to her own benefit.

This debate doesn’t have much to do with the central plot, and it’s considerably less interesting than the Anne/Sarah/Abigail dynamic. Still, it serves a crucial purpose in reminding the audience that Queen Anne is in fact a queen. There are crucial decisions that depend on her health, her state of mind, who is advising her, and who is jockeying to influence her for what reason. Put simply, this war in the background between Britain and France gives the story some massive geopolitical stakes, which are imperative in any story about royalty.

So are there any nitpicks? Well… it’s a Yorgos Lanthimos picture. While this is easily the most conventional of his pictures that I’ve ever seen, that’s not saying much. This is still a picture that operates on its own internal logic unlike anything seen anywhere else in cinema, and you’ll either think it’s brilliant or pretentious as fuck. Probably the biggest deciding factor is that as with all of Lanthimos’ pictures (those I’ve seen, anyway), this one has an open ending. While I personally thought it was an unexpected surprise that capped the film perfectly, I can easily imagine the same ending leaving audience members confused an unfulfilled.

If The Favourite ranks among the year’s best, that’s only because it hasn’t been an especially strong year. Even so, it’s still a movie worth watching. The cast is great across the board, and I love how the filmmakers turned the tired “costume drama” genre on its ear in some wickedly clever ways. Still, while this is easily the most accessible of Lanthimos’ works that I’ve ever seen, it’s not the most inventive or incisive. So give the movie a watch and see if his brand of surrealism agrees with you.

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