"Favour is a breeze that shifts direction all the time."
It is easy to simply dismiss the work of Yorgos Lanthimos as being inherently perverse and strange, but beneath all of the eccentricities within his films lies a profound statement both on the absurdity of the individual as well as the madness of the dynamic around them. Whether it is the lives of the children in ‘Dogtooth’, the lovers plight in ‘The Lobster’ or the sadistic plan for revenge in ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’, you can marvel at the oddities of the characters themselves but would be remised if you didn’t ask whether they are the product of the environment they inhabit.
In early 18th century England, a frail Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) occupies the throne. Her close friend, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), governs the country in her stead, while tending to Anne's ill health and mercurial temper. When a new servant, Abigail (Emma Stone), arrives seeking work, she slowly starts to build up empathy with the aristocracy surrounding her and grows closer to the queen as vicious rivalries begin to emerge.
On the surface this seemingly eloquent period piece with a screenplay which he had no part in writing would seem like somewhat of a far cry from Lanthimos’ other projects, dare I say one that seems more strategically suited to awards favour than anything else. However any fears I had that this would conform to convention were quickly dissipated as I realised that the world of ‘The Favourite’ is one of exploitable systems of power alongside ruthless individuals willing to undertake any means necessary to survive within that system.
Like all of Lanthimos’ previous efforts there is a delicate balance of tone on display here. ‘The Favourite’ seems constantly caught on a razors edge between the most absurd comedy and the darkest drama. What you may laugh at on the first viewing could later reveal itself to be a striking statement on the films depraved systems of power and the even more depraved humans that occupy it. In fact that might summarise the overall effect of the film, aspects that seem inherently absurd are treated as such, but the script refuses to overlook the very real and troubling emotional fallout each one of these oddities leaves in its wake.
A criticism I sometimes see being levelled against Lanthimos’ work is that his high minded concepts and absurdity leaves little room for genuine humanity, a criticism which I can sympathise with even if I personally disagree. However ‘The Favourite’ displays a shocking amount of empathy for its characters. Beneath all of their eccentricities and brutal rivalries, with each one we see a motivation that is surprisingly relatable. From Anne’s insecurities over whether or not her friends or allies truly love her or are just exploiting her position of power, to Sarah’s staunch and steadfast belief that her advice and guidance to Anne will yield the best results for the country as a whole, as well as Abigail’s need to feel secure and assured in her status rather than constantly fighting for survival. You can distinctly see the deeply human flaws and drives in each of these characters.
These three strong female leads are further complemented by the strength of the performances portraying them. Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are all truly magnificent in the film, each one turning in what could be called a career best performance. Each of them conveys such a distinct first impression that it becomes all the more amazing when they so brilliantly subvert that impression and use it as a means to convey a deeply affecting character arc. Colman resists the urge to reduce Anne to a caricature and instead paints a portrait of a vulnerable and intensely insecure woman whose main desire is to feel loved and respected by those around her. Stone and Weisz duel for Anne’s affections in a game of wits and strategy that is made all the more engaging by the layers each actor brings to their role, gripping the viewer in something as inconsequential as their turn of a phrase.
But ‘The Favourite’ is by no means just a showcase for the actors themselves. Lanthimos may not be working with material that is as overtly outlandish as he has in the past, however he has lost none of the visual dynamism or striking frames that shone in his other directorial outings. The film is littered with wide angles designed to isolate the characters within the settings and alienate the viewer in accustoming them to this unforgiving world around them. In contrast to these wide shots however are an array of uncomfortable close ups that are unafraid to capture the characters at their lowest and ugliest moments. If ‘The Favourite’ holds a sense of humour that most period dramas do not, it also contains a greater sense pf pain and anguish that most do as well.
Despite going against the grain of most period dramas however, ‘The Favourite’ does not sell itself short in terms of aesthetically representing the era. The costume design by Sandy Powell is beyond exquisite, often conveying elements of story and character entirely on its own. The gorgeous set design and lighting is something to behold as well, particularly when framed by Lanthimos and his director of photography Robbie Ryan.
With so much of the film’s world built on lavish aesthetics designed to mask the flaws of humanity, it becomes all the more striking to see those weaknesses put on full display through the writing, performances and direction which are keen to highlight every single one of them. At its core this is a film of desperate people each striving to achieve their own desires, with each of them using the power structure around them to their full advantage. It’s a brutal war of words, with the dialogue between the characters often being the thing which inflicts the most pain.
That being said, some of the most haunting moments of the film are also some of the quietest. In particular the final few moments are a truly evocative series of revelations regarding how these characters really stand when all is said and done. You may find yourself unsure of who to side with throughout ‘The Favourite’ but its final shot is a heart breaking realisation for all involved that their ultimate choice was likely the wrong one.
A thrilling duel for power between three acutely drawn and deeply sympathetic women, shot with a visual tour de force by Lanthimos, ‘The Favourite’ is an eccentric masterwork.