With a good sample size of movies to go by, Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos has shown himself to be an acquired taste. His films tend to operate on their own quirky wavelengths often within the punishing boundaries of his harsh worldview. His characters take the brunt, but he can be just as tough on his audience especially when he muddies the line between heartbreaking and nihilistic.
“The Favourite” features many of the same Lanthimos signatures but this time with a bigger foot in the real world. Set in early 18th century Britain and taking place almost exclusively on the grounds of the Royal Palace, the story follows a sickly Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and her conniving court of opportunists.
At the movie’s core is the toxic trinity of the Queen, the Duchess of Marlborough Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s ambitious cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). To no surprise Lanthimos chose the more salacious (and generally discredited) interpretation of Anne’s relationship with both Sarah and Abigail. But to be fair he’s not going for an accurate depiction. It’s the framework he wants for his bitter and twisted tale.
As England wars with the French so to does Sarah and Abigail for the Queen’s affection (because along with the Queen’s affection comes position, power and influence). Nothing is too devious or too vile for these lovely human beings. Backstabbing, deception, sexual devilry – it’s all fair game. And this is the rest of the movie in a nutshell, two ruthless vipers duking it out for their own self-absorbed reasons. The only suspense is in which one will be left standing.
This is the first time Lanthimos hasn’t directed his own script. Instead Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara pen this verbally volatile period romp. Your enjoyment may hinge on your tolerance level for nasty behavior. It can be tough finding some level of heart but we do get a taste of it in Queen Anne. She’s a sad and pitiful woman plagued by crippling gout, unbearable grief, and a ton of insecurities. While Weisz and Stone are very good at peddling malevolence, Colman offers an occasional yet welcomed breather.
There are a handful of men scattered throughout the story. All of them are more or less pawns who the women manipulate for their good pleasure. It’s fun to watch. The best of the lot is Nicholas Hoult who is a hoot playing the slimy and subtly conniving Harley. He’s a politician with an agenda and I swear his wigs get bigger and more absurd with each new scene he’s in.
While I found plenty in the story to push back on, I certainly can’t argue against Lanthimos’ incredible sense of craft. His camera employs all sorts of intriguing perspectives, interesting lens tricks, and funky angles. Sometimes it’s tough to see what he’s trying to convey but it always looks fantastic. Chipping in are some gorgeous set designs and Sandy Powell’s exquisite costumes which Lanthimos definitely takes advantage of.
“The Favourite” shines brightest through its top-notch performances across the board and in the sheer beauty of the filmmaking. That light fades when you get down to the meat of the storytelling. The bitterness wore on me, it can be pointlessly coarse, and I didn’t laugh much at all (except at Hoult). Not good for a blue-blooded black comedy. So I end up where I often do with Yorgos Lanthimos films – somewhere in the middle between impressed and frustrated.
VERDICT – 2.5 STARS