The Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has made a name for himself as a maker of absurd, darkly hilarious films such as ‘The Lobster’ and ‘Dogtooth’. His latest project, ‘The Favourite’, focusses on Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) in 1708 while England was at war with France. This synopsis might suggest a serious, complicated drama but of course, as it is a Lanthimos film, that is not the case. ‘The Favourite’ is his first Period film and it is unlike any usual film of this genre. Curse words are used casually by the English aristocrats and they often fight like children. The viewer expects these types of characters to be dignified and reserved but instead, they are ridiculous and larger than life.
Colman takes great pleasure in depicting Queen Anne as someone who behaves like an insolent and ignorant child despite her age and stature. The viewer learns quickly that Anne’s most trusted confidante Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) is truly responsible for how Britain will handle the crisis on their doorstep. The stability of Churchill’s position is threatened when Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) arrives at the court. Hill’s father gambled away her fortune and while at first, she insists on being honourable, she soon deduces that if she replaces Churchill as the Queen’s favoured advisor, she could quickly return to her formerly powerful position. Abigail and Sarah are foils to one another. Sarah is brutally honest, for example, at the beginning of the film, she informs Queen Anne that she resembles a badger when she tries out a new look with her makeup. Abigail, on the other hand, never fails to praise the Queen, although her pleasing façade disguises the truth of her manipulative nature. The film poses the question of whether it is better, to be honest, or to perform niceness.
Colman, Weisz and Stone deliver strong performances in this film and this comes as no surprise. Emma Stone’s role in ‘The Favourite’ marks a significant step in her career. For many years she played a familiar role; the character was charming, funny, most likely a love interest and always American, it felt like an extension of Stone’s real-life personality. The character of Abigail Hill greatly differs from that role Stone was restricted to for so long, she is selfish and devious, and it is significant that she develops into a worse person during the course of the picture. This film should make us excited for the future of Stone’s career.
‘The Favourite’ is exciting in itself because it is refreshing and progressive. Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill are lovers in the film, one of the few fictional details Lanthimos incorporates. This element provides a deeper explanation for why the two women are so close and why Abigail poses such a threat to them. This inclusion of queer women as lead characters is radical, especially considering how rare this is in most films, particularly in period films. ‘The Favourite’ makes a powerful statement by depicting queer characters in a historical context. It dispels the myth that queer people are a new phenomenon, instead, it affirms that they have always existed.
The gender dynamics of this film are radical. The focus of the film is on the triangle of female characters and the power struggle between them, the male characters are reduced to the background. The ongoing conflict of the War of the Spanish Succession is discussed extensively by the characters during the film, but it is never actually depicted on screen. This suggests that the conflict between the trio of female characters is what decides how Britain will handle the crisis, rather than the physical battles between men. The male characters of ‘The Favourite’ do not wield much power. Harley (Nicholas Hoult) is convinced of his great influence, but the camera often lingers below his face, it rarely meets him at eye level, cleverly creating doubt about this assurance. Joe Alwyn plays Abigail’s dim-witted pursuer, Samuel Masham, and in many ways, his character satirises this type of role that is usually played by women in films. The fact that the balance of power does not lie in favour of the men is refreshing, especially for a film set in the past when women had less power than they do now.
‘The Favourite’ differs from other comedies because instead of comforting the viewer, it unsettles them. The characters rarely leave the setting of the castle, so the viewer feels as confined to the place as they are. In some scenes, the fisheye lens is used to distort and refract rooms and hallways and there are instances when dialogue between a pair of characters plays over scenes featuring an entirely different set of characters. Both techniques effectively create an imbalance. This establishment of a startling and absurd tone is a deliberate choice made by Lanthimos, this tone defines his filmography. He has ensured that he does not alienate his viewers by exploring relevant and relatable themes. ‘The Lobster’, for example, explored how love and relationships function in society. ‘The Favourite’ is concerned with power, how it functions in ruling institutions and how it is attained. Manipulation and coercion are the tactics to gain dominance in ‘The Favourite’. In fact, it is the only method available as meritocracy was not a dominant ideology in feudal times. Of course, that does not mean such tactics are absent in today’s ruling institutions and the film gives the viewer space to make connections to the modern day.
‘The Favourite’ is the Lanthimos film that has attracted the most mainstream attention and the most awards recognition, perhaps because of the big names attached and it is the most enjoyable film he has released to date. One fault of the film is that its running time could have been skimmed by ten minutes, towards the end it began to drag. The final five minutes of the film, however, certainly should not have been cut. They are dazzling and befuddling, the film is worth watching again simply to understand the meaning behind those few minutes.
By Brigid Molloy – Film Writer