The world of Yorgos Lanthimos is a strange and impenetrable one. With each film in his limited filmography, whether through deadpan comedy or horrific terror, the Greek filmmaker finds a way to eviscerate the world we live in with a crippling dexterity…but that doesn’t mean they always work. Lanthimos’s first two films, Dogtooth and The Lobster, are two very different films with two very different tones and messages, but they’re both excellent looks at the world of polite society and the genuinely strange ways humans can break the traditions of it. His follow up, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, was a much darker effort on his part and this was where he struggled for me. Lanthimos’s deadpan approach to dialogue and communication in his films is unlike any other writer of his kind, but in a film as darkly sadistic as The Killing of a Sacred Deer, it feels oddly misguided and so painfully awkward that it makes it difficult to sit through. While it may normally be a compliment in a thriller like that, it really throws off the equilibrium of the piece.
Lanthimos has the talent to produce something truly unique, but his last work suggested that it could not be done in a way that felt as genuine as his previous works. Leaving the screenplay to different writers and with a more comedic tone, bigger cast, and studio backing, Lanthimos took on a bit of a different approach with The Favourite, seeking to shake up the period genre.
And my god, does it work.
This is an absolutely rapturous period comedy with an insane bite to it. It’s searing, explicit and weird as hell, but it’s not impenetrable.
It is the early 18th century, England is at war with France and England is led by Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), an aging, gluttonous, absent-minded monarch who is disliked by many of her political colleagues and leaves much of the work with her Favourite, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). When Sarah’s distant cousin, Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) arrives at the palace for employment, Sarah initially gives her work as a scullery maid. While Abigail exceeds at her work, she catches the eye of Queen Anne, who takes a liking to Abigail’s laissez-faire attitude, a sharp contrast from Sarah’s stern and occasionally cruel demeanor. As Abigail is promoted, she and Anne grow closer, leaving Abigail and Sarah in a political power struggle to see who can keep the attention of the Queen for good.
The major pull of The Favourite are the performances. The three main actresses in the film find a wonderful balance between moments of levity, tragedy, and evil in their own, unique ways. Still, despite this, it’s Colman who comes out on top here. Colman is almost so good here that her next role, the much-publicized takeover of the role of Elizabeth II from Claire Foy on Netflix’s The Crown, may only pale in comparison to this absolutely perfect performance. She’s perhaps the only likable character in the whole film, but she’s tragically frustrating, needing constant attention and affirmation to keep the most basic of royal duties.
Weisz and Stone are delightfully cruel together, in different, but wonderfully unique ways. Weisz is cold, distant, and efficient, with a strong, almost masculine hand asserting herself as a powerful figure in the patriarchal political landscape of 18th century England. Stone, however, is meek, cunning, and almost snake-like in her ways. Arguably less intimidating and more magnetic, there’s a surly nature to her performance, something almost sleazy about her presence, that lets you know that she is not an innocent bystander in this sea of royal insanity, but potentially the catalyst that will lead to its inevitable implosion.
What is on-brand for Lanthimos is how he uses visual effects to make the film feel generally off from the start, leaving the audience with an uncomfortable, but manageable, sense of dread throughout the film even though it lacks any direct macabre or violence. There’s always a strange feeling of suspicion that makes you question not only the intent of every single character on screen but to what extent each character will go to, what depravities they will commit, to advance whatever agenda they might have in the context of the story. There’s this expectation something bad will happen at any time, and the audience just has to wait until whatever it is they think might happen, will. Lanthimos has a way of constructing his films in a way that feels like the Murphy’s Law of filmmaking; anything bad that can happen, will happen.
This doesn’t even take into account how hilarious the film is throughout most of its runtime. There’s a sense of dread with everything that you feel bad about laughing at the whole thing. The comedic timing of the actors, including supporting players like Nicholas Hoult and Joe Alwyn, is second-to-none. There’s such a punch to the entire thing as the exploitation of the tragic nature of these characters really leaves a mark. It’s so much so that these laughs leave emotional bruises, yet the general lack of any moral compass makes it a little easier to handle.
The power of The Favourite comes from its exploration of the meaning of female relationships and how power affects them in patriarchally oppressive societies. The concept of a “powerful woman” was an entirely foreign concept in this period, and the fact there were three powerful women at the heart of the world’s largest empire, if only for a time, shook up England for centuries to come.
Not only did Lanthimos improve upon his misstep in The Killing of a Sacred Deer with The Favourite, but he’s also crafted what is easily his best film to date. Even without a screenwriting credit, there’s this undeniable flow and inevitable pull that feels like Lanthimos, but entirely evolved. It’s not a particularly flashy film, but it calls your attention in such a magnetic way that it’s nearly impossible to walk away from it without being completely shaken and strangely uplifted from the whole experience. There isn’t really much that wasn’t done expertly and astutely, and that’s what makes The Favourite one of the best films of 2018.
Final Score: 5 out of 5