Yorgos Lanthimos’s charming and disorientating The Favourite is a grandiosely fresh period drama-comedy that is rich in complex characters and sharp, scathing cinematography. Esteemed for challenging feature films such as Dogtooth and Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Favourite explores similar themes to these earlier works- including power, transgression and isolation. However, The Favourite is satisfyingly comedic and relatable largely due to Lanthimos’s skill in conveying the absurdity of the human experience.
Set in the late 18th century court of lonely monarch Queen Anne, played by the spectacular Olivia Colman, Lanthimos displays sheer force in his utilisation of the period genre. This frees it from rigidity and injects it into lively and complex characters. When the political, personal and sexual relationship between the Queen and the regal Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Wiesz) is challenged by the arrival of would-be-servant girl Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a saga of yo-yoing affections and vengeance evolves within this courtly love triangle. This scandal is set against the backdrop of Britain’s unrest with France and the government’s disagreements regarding how the situation should be handled. Once more, the Queen’s own disengagement and lack of confidence as a monarch has resulted in Lady Churchill effectively overseeing the operation, and indeed the country. This is a position that makes her extremely powerful, yet simultaneously vulnerable, as Abigail seizes every opportunity to cunningly drive a wedge between the two and wriggle into the Queen’s affection.
Despite the decadent scenery, Lanthimos rejects sensationalism in his films. The plot seems to evolve through a procession of bumps and groans as opposed to the Hollywood crescendo we are accustomed to. Absurd and witty language seasons this film to perfection, while the scathing soundtrack contributes to its, at times, rather unsettling tone. Handel-esque cacophonies of instruments all screech together, and rival sounds seemingly replicate the rivalry of the characters in the film.
As a film, The Favourite compelled me to dwell on the complexity of pity, and what a strange emotion it is. It is difficult not to pity the superbly portrayed Queen Anne. Her character is so clearly withered by the loss of seventeen children, the death of a husband and the steady decline of her physical health. Yet despite these troubles, a strange intense charisma has been maintained through the love she radiates for her bunny rabbits, her poignant strops and outbursts of playfulness. Quite often pity is the ugly substitute for empathy in regard to the spectating of film, but I felt rather in solidarity with Anne and had respect for her immature cognitive dissonance. She is an odd, solipsistic character that helped the film embody an undercurrent of surrealism. At one point I was crying for her and at another I was gigging away as Colman’s performance as Queen Anne conveys the vast spectrum and contradictions of emotion.
This film feels like a Jackson Pollock painting, the vast and skilfully bleak cinematography of Robbie Ryan forcefully splattered with a tangled display of humour, intricacy and emotion. The Favourite forcefully examines the intersections of sex and power with an energy that is far more intelligent than much of the mainstream cinema we see today. Sexuality is a consistent theme in the film; not only do we follow the ambiguous going-ons of the Queen’s bedchamber, there are also ‘cunt-stuck’ courtly gentlemen as delightfully ignorant to the real driving force behind the nations governance as they are to the lack of any meaningful input they have regarding Britain’s political landscape.
While it is difficult to think of many criticisms of The Favourite, at times it did feel a little too polished for my liking. At times the comedy distracted the viewer from the grittier elements of the film, a balance that was perhaps better accomplished in Lanthimos’s movie Dogtooth, for example. However, this is not the most significant observation and The Favourite is massively commendable in terms of balance between intellectual accessibility and intelligent exploratory film making. Whilst not immediately digestible and highly thought provoking, the film still satisfies the audiences need to be enthralled and enticed by a movie whilst maintaining artistic integrity. This new feature from Lanthimos is a deliciously decadent spectacle and very much the calibre of cinema the world currently needs.
Words, Katie Davies – @katiekrampus
Images, Fox Searchlight & Olivia Colman