Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite has generated tremendous buzz since hitting the festival circuit. The pre-Victorian period film chronicles the dramatic swings of Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman) relationships with her long time friend and confidant Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Sarah’s maid and distant cousin Abigail (Emma Stone). Like other Lanthimos films, The Favourite maintains a dramatic and tense environment undercut with almost constant humor, though I’d assert that The Favourite’s sense of humor is less dark than its predecessors The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
The Favourite is a magnificently lavish production, taking the extravagant sets and costumes of your typical period piece to the next level and holding nothing back in creating a world occupied by the wealthiest of the royal and elite. Lanthimos pokes fun at the wigs and excessive makeup worn by the men in Parliament at the time, particularly that of Harley (Nicholas Hoult) who poses the greatest political opposition to Lady Sarah and supposedly to the Queen (though Queen Anne seems to have no true political drive of her own). Queen Anne’s bedroom is among the most over-the-top of the settings in the film, covered floor-to-ceiling in elaborate tapestries, but the entirety of the set design is jam packed with a laughable excess of pre-Victorian paraphernalia.
The comedic swings of The Favourite are more obvious and frequent than other Lanthimos projects. Where his previous films derive humor from dry or witty banter in tense situations, The Favourite structures its dialogue with more traditional comedic timing. The rapid fire one-liners can overwhelm at times, and keep the tone unexpectedly light given the constant flow of dishonesty, betrayal, and political intrigue shaping the plot.
The sound design is among the shining stars of The Favourite. One of my favorite sequences portrays Abigail’s first attempt to become familiar with Queen Anne. Alongside the bonding of the two women, Lanthimos allows us to hear Lady Sarah pigeon shooting which is posed as a major stress reliever for her throughout the film. The sound of the shots is not your typical on-screen “pop” accompanying a gun firing. Instead the shots boom and echo, emphasizing both Abigail’s betrayal and the threat of Sarah’s retribution.
The gender and sexual politics of The Favourite are certainly worth noting. The plot revolves almost entirely around its three female stars, and even its most prominent male character (Hoult) is played with an extreme femininity and an implication of homosexuality. Lanthimos also explores homosexual relationships with his three female leads, interestingly blending sexual faithfulness (or lack thereof) with political power struggles. Sarah and Queen Anne’s complex power dynamic as both lovers and political allies is further muddled by the introduction of Abigail, whose attempts to obtain power become gradually more sociopathic in nature. The performances of all three women perfectly suit the characters and bring a remarkable authenticity to the almost unbelievable events that unfold on screen.
If I had to lob one criticism at The Favourite it’d be the faltering of Lanthimos’ unique voice. His previous films were so discernibly Lanthimosian that it was a surprise to see something that didn’t capture his pronounced style. Elements of his voice shone through, but the plot, music, and all around tone of the film felt as if ripped directly from Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Given, even the moments that feel like pure imitation are well executed enough to still consider admirable, but in viewing a film by one of cinema’s most unique directors, any detection of imitation is somewhat disappointing.
I’m not sure how I would place The Favourite among Lanthimos’ other films, but I think that it will serve as a bridge for those uncomfortable with his unusual surrealist style to access his art. It is an entertaining and spectacularly composed period film with enough comedy and tension to never feel dry or slow. It follows convention enough to appeal to a more traditional viewer while maintaining enough of Lanthimos’ strangeness to not disappoint his fans. Even in meeting mainstream audiences halfway, Lanthimos leaves us with a heavy dollop of peculiarity in the film’s puzzling and divisive final moments, which are not to be forgotten.