The Favourite is the new film from Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, who has recently been intriguing wider audiences with his English-language efforts.
Many found the quirky and absurdist sense of humour a real attraction, and both 2015’s The Lobster and 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer were among the most discussed of their respective years of release. Perhaps the purest example of the director’s work is 2009’s Dogtooth, a strange and enclosed family comedy-drama featuring some rather controversial and bizarre material. This also incited discussion on release, but was no way near as widely seen as his work post-2015.
Now, the director has released his most acclaimed film yet. Set in 18th century England, the country is at war with the French, and the confused Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) has allowed herself to be persuaded by the opinions and rulings of her long-time friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz). The two are inseparable, that is until new servant Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives with a taste for luxury. After having lost the title of “Lady” some time ago, she works intently to become the Queen’s favourite and desperately achieve mobility.
The story sounds familiar, and Lanthimos is also surely aware of this himself. However, he elevates this triangle of trickery, love, greed, loyalty, manipulation, control, into something a little bit more rewarding. The three central performances - and that of the supporting cast - are wonderful, and this is possibly one of the finest ensemble casts in recent memory. They do a terrific job, and are aided by phenomenal cinematography and inventive camerawork. The choice of lenses is strange, and together with the dialogue there is a real surreal undercurrent; yet, the production design is so impeccably gorgeous that there is a real exciting conflict of tones that keeps things interesting.
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - 2018
The lighting is similarly superb, with roaring flames in the night-time exteriors and candlelit claustrophobic interiors - paintings faintly illuminated so spectrally. Visually, the film is certifiably exquisite, and one of the most pleasurable cinema experiences in recent memory. However, like his last two pieces of work, this isn’t perfect; although admittedly it surpasses them. The Favourite lacks any of the shock-factor that his recent efforts had, but what we do have is his grandest production to date, which fortunately overshadows weaker elements. The humour revolves around peculiarity and inappropriateness - as associated with Lanthimos - and is laced into the dialogue every now and then, but there is never any truly laugh-out-loud material.
In the wake of its conclusion, you can’t help but feel it’s a little unfinished, like something’s missing. Perhaps it’s because the storytelling feels a little bare, or maybe even because the production feels so grand that the brief run-time doesn’t conform to what we’d expect from a period epic. Either way, it does feel like a scene - an explosive moment - is amiss, or rather that there is a restraint here towards the macabre we haven’t yet seen Lanthimos surrender to, until now. The final shot almost summarises the experience: fantastic to look at, visually bold, and while we understand its implications we only wish it were that little bit more impactful, after all, the artistry on display warrants it.
Films such as Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession and Milos Forman’s Amadeus have been cited as influences, and while these are all clearly evident in the final piece, it would be ridiculous not to be reminiscent of the cinema of Walerian Borowczyk while watching this - particularly 1971’s Blanche. The locations, certain character types, erotica, they’re present here, and it would be naive to think that Lanthimos isn’t a fan of his work. Despite these comparisons, The Favourite is yet another addition to a unique filmmaker’s body of work, of which his fans contextualise to draw on concepts of auteurism in modern cinema.
This is no doubt indulgent filmmaking, but Yorgos Lanthimos is lucky enough to have us happy enough to tuck into this visual feast for its entire duration. From a technical perspective, The Favourite is spellbindingly masterful.
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