Movie Review: The Favourite.
The Favourite somehow manages to be slightly less than the sum of its exquisite parts.
Yorgos Lanthimos expertly crafts his most mainstream film to date, packed with exceptional performances, gorgeous settings, and dialogue that many a script writer would kill for. That is not to say The Favourite isn’t also packed full of the scathing satire and adroit absurdity for which he is famous. It is rather that this film, by renouncing his usual stilted acting aesthetic, is much more approachable for a first-time viewer of the director’s style of film making. By adopting a more traditional delivery, Lanthimos demonstrates his mastery of the techniques of film-craft. Unfortunately, it also dispels the mystique of his philosophical insinuations.
The Favourite (2018)
England is in the midst of a war with France which has divided Her Majesty’s court along partisan lines. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), afflicted with physical and emotional ailments, relies heavily on her childhood friend, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) to run the country. Sarah relishes doing so, prosecuting the war in an imperious and decisive manner which has infuriated the nobility paying for the endeavor. When a disgraced relative to Sarah, Abigail (Emma Stone), arrives at court, she becomes the linchpin upon which intrigue turns. Sarah seeks to dominate her, the nobles seek to enlist her, and Abigail herself desires to use her growing friendship with the queen to establish her own base of power.
Quite a Piece, Period.
With virtually all of his other films being set in either contemporary times or oddly anachronistic hodge-podges, it is interesting to see the gusto with which Lanthimos takes to a period piece. The sets and costumes are excellent. Lanthimos uses ambient and period-specific lighting to create a rich atmosphere. Some jiggery-pokery is done that may not be strictly accurate (a stately court dance turning into nightclub slam dancing comes to mind), but Lanthimos intends them to be as such: he chose the time period partly because very few films or shows have used it. In interviews he states that he wanted to avoid falling into rigid conformity with other period pieces, ironically enough so that his performances wouldn‘t become stiff and stilted!
So often in his work, the setting becomes a character, often an absurdist allegorical character. Here he manages to achieve his aim precisely by letting the setting work as setting. Instead of having to contort the familiar to create satire, he can simply rely on the unfamiliar to do the job for him. This is another reason the film is much friendlier to regular audiences: if you don’t want to pay attention to subtext, you get quite an exquisitely rendered period drama that works much like you would expect.
The cast in The Favourite is great, top to bottom. Rachel Weisz demonstrated that she flourishes under Lanthimos’ style by her turn in The Lobster. Here, without the bindings of stilted delivery, she shines. Emma Stone is fantastic, as her usual charm and ease is paired with a sadistic streak that she seems to be really enjoying. Both performances have depth and intricately portrayed nuance to them. It’s almost a shame that Olivia Colman is such a force of nature as Queen Anne; she doesn’t eclipse their excellence with her amazing turn as the queen, but she is such a grand figure that she tugs their orbits into alignment with her gravity. Come Oscar time, my money is on Colman: every little bit of her performance Anne is outstanding, from her childish petulance fueled by a lifetime of chronic pain, to her regal, aching sadness as she is undone at every turn by her situation.
Another performance that I found to be a real pleasure was Nicolas Hoult. He was engaging in Mad Max Fury Road, and has rarely been a disappointment in other roles, but I never expected him to be such a delight as the utterly awful Earl of Oxford. He is a smiling, glib, sadistic little shit who would gladly destroy your whole family if it added a penny to his estate and Hoult nails his portrayal to the wall. If there was anything that could persuade me that this was a comedy, it was Hoult’s performance. Early on, he blithely asks Emma Stone if she would like to be punched in the face; the earnestness and casual villainy of it made me double-take.
What I’ve always enjoyed about Lanthimos’ films (even the ones that ended up being disappointing) is that they operate on a myriad levels. Zooming all the way out, his work has a broadly satirical absurdist layer. The oddness of society’s rules on love and pair bonding in The Lobster; the taboos of grieving and death in Alps; the banality and viciousness of nobility in The Favourite. Zooming all the way in, you get a personal layer where Lanthimos probes internal struggles. Colin Farrell’s struggle to keep the secret of having killed a patient from his family (and himself) in The Killing of a Sacred Deer; the intense longing of a daughter to disobey her controlling father in Dogtooth; Abigail’s ethical dilemma about crossing social boundaries in order to gain the power to keep herself safe. These poles make Lanthimos’ films endlessly re-watchable and thought provoking.
Then we come to the middle layer: iconoclasm. Here’s where the wheels usually come off. Instead of calling attention to examined social structures or plumbing the depth of interior psychological contradictions, the middle layer is generally a jaundiced polemic against sacred cows. In The Lobster, it’s marriage; in Dogtooth it’s the patriarchal godhood of fathers; in The Favourite, it’s the saintliness of period piece heroines. Unfortunately, when Lanthimos starts throwing grenades in his films, one or two usually wind up blowing up in his hands.
Sauce for the Goose?
The long suffering, nearly virginal nobility of Downton Abbey-style ladies is out. Here we have ladies who fuck and fight and swear. It’s a fine goal, to show women of the period actually being human, but it’s suffused with such a sense of provocativeness that it feels like a stunt instead of a realignment of sensibilities. It also feels as if Lanthimos has the wrong targets for much of his withering gaze.
I couldn’t shake a sense of shaming being uniquely levied at Sarah and Abigail; how the way their maneuvering is presented feels much more judgemental. Because our heroines actually have an interior life that their male counterparts do not, male sins seem venal while the same sins coming from Abigail or Sarah are damning. When Hoult’s character tries to use sex to trip up Abigail it is a laughably inept stratagem. When Abigail uses sex to get Queen Anne’s favor, it’s transgressive and feels meant to shock. We can read that because she gives a speech about it conflicting with her morals, and Lanthimos plays the violin theme from a horror movie while it is happening. Why? If we’re just seeing that power politics, especially of the sexual nature, are distasteful, then it should apply equally. Instead, sex as a tool is shrugged at for men while a woman using it practically makes her Dracula.
Worth a Gander.
The Favourite is one of the harder movies I’ve had to write up, mostly because Lanthimos tackles so many things with aplomb that the few missteps become more disconcerting. His films are generally so good that I feel like I’ve made a personal error if I don’t like them without reservations.
Technically, The Favourite is a masterpiece. The composition of scenes, the use of panning shots and fish-eye lenses to create intimacy and alienation at once, and the beauty of the cinematography are excellent. The acting is fantastic, and the script gives the talented cast an embarrassment of riches in terms of characterization and dialogue. As simply a piece of entertainment, it flows wonderfully and has narrative complexity that keeps you constantly engaged. As an absurdist indictment of the human condition, its mostly adroit; it fields its ideas without overplaying them (unlike, say, The Lobster.) As a character study of two personalities locked into a battle of the wills to the death, the film is riveting. My reservations about the portrayal of Anne and Sarah and Abigail as social critique will likely read differently for others. I just came away feeling like it did more to reinforce social taboos than to demolish them.