The Favourite is a game-changing costume drama that proves to be more thrilling than even the best action movies.
From the very first frame of the film, it’s resoundingly clear that The Favourite is something special. Orchestral music swells with a thunderous introduction as we watch the queen, dressed in a voluminous gown with an enormous train stretched behind her, remove her ornate crown from her head. The wide shot of her bedchambers reveals a room full of lavish tapestries, grandiose windows, exquisite wood paneling, and a royal four poster bed. In just a single shot, The Favourite sets the stage for what can only be described as a decadent cinematic feast for the ages.
Greek writer and director Yorgos Lanthimos has, rather quickly, carved out a niche for himself and his distinct voice in today’s popular cinema. After his 2009 film Dogtooth was nominated for an Oscar, Lanthimos has been a popular name on the art house movie circuit. After his first English-language film The Lobster was released in 2015, Lanthimos found himself catapulted into an even brighter spotlight. The film was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars and left everyone wondering what he would do next.
After the release and tepid response to his 2017 film The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos has returned to form with The Favourite. Not only is Lanthimos’ newest film his most accessible (or perhaps “less alienating” would be a more apt descriptor), but it’s also one of his very best; it demonstrates a renewed ambition and unique growth from a filmmaker whose work traditionally ranges from utterly bizarre to truly horrific.
Based on real events from the history of the British monarchy, The Favourite paints a rich portrait of the complicated and private relationships shared between three powerful, determined, and uniquely-motivated women. The Favourite offers a wealth of fascinating characters that provide Lanthimos with a sort of cinematic playground upon which to derive comedy and tragedy in equal measure.
From Queen Anne herself (Olivia Colman), ailed by sickness and trauma, to the commanding Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) who helps run the kingdom in Anne’s place, to young but formidable Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), a former lady intent on improving her social standing, Lanthimos doesn’t let a single second of the movie go to waste and fills every frame with these thundering and commanding women.
With The Favourite, Lanthimos shows audiences a softer side of his unmistakable, often perverse perspective on storytelling. Don’t be misled: The Favourite still feels like a Lanthimos film, but this time around he offers his characters a greater interiority that makes them feel more human thereby giving the film far more connective tissue than his past work.
There’s one key difference between The Favourite and Lanthimos’ previous films that might help explain why his newest work stands out from the rest. Unlike his other movies that have always based their plot around some strange plot device (or gimmick, depending on how you see it), The Favourite offers no such gimmick; the film is, quite literally and textually, about two women vying for the attention of the Queen.
One woman, Lady Sarah, is the familiar face from decades past who uses her personal relationship with the Queen to gain influence and power in the kingdom. The other, Abigail, is a newcomer who sees an opportunity to use her charm and the Queen’s preference for pretty girls to improve her quality of life.
In a way, The Favourite is Lanthimos’ most human film thus far; rather than create a veil surrounding the characters using static and sterile environments and deadpan line deliveries, Lanthimos allows the film to bleed red with human flaws and idiosyncrasies, desires and fears. Rather than code the message of the film with coy analogies and symbolism, Lanthimos allows The Favourite to wear its heart, pumping with bloody ferocity, proudly upon its sleeve.
Moreover, Lanthimos is lucky to have such a phenomenal cast leading the movie. The Favourite features three of the year’s best performances from Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz. Each actress is charged within bringing her own character to life on screen and, in a film such as this where every detail is larger than life, that’s no small feat. Yet these actresses succeed scene after scene, moving from sweet to scathing at a moments notice. Each actress threads the needle to create a character that is wholly her own, making their increasingly intricate relationships even more entertaining to watch.
There is no weak spot in this tricky and twisted triptych. In fact, they are so good that The Favourite may make it impossible for audiences to pick a favorite. One thing is certain: these performances are so good that they give the film the unique characteristic of not belonging to any one story. In other words, this is not just Queen Anne’s story, nor is it just Lady Sarah’s or Abigail’s. All three of their stories coalesce to create something larger than life and that’s the genius of the film.
The Favourite is all at once a hysterical, borderline farcical, comedy as well as a profoundly moving tragedy. Through its three unique protagonists, it effortlessly changes perspectives so as to demonstrate Lanthimos’ ambidextrous storytelling technique.
At times, the story belongs to Abigail. We watch as she learns what it takes to survive, conspires to get what she wants, and enchants the Queen, members of parliament, and yes, even the audience. When we watch the story through Abigail, it feels entirely different than when we see it through Lady Sarah’s perspective; her’s is a much sadder story, one that exists at the intersection of the personal and political; she struggles to help run the monarchy while struggling with her own fears of what may happen to her husband (who happens to lead the Queen’s army currently at war), to herself, and of course to the Queen.
Through the eyes of Queen Anne, the film takes on an entirely new identity. Her’s is a story of loss. Plagued by the trauma of losing 17 children and her ongoing illnesses, Anne is desperate for love, companionship, and constant attention. Her pain is ultimately her greatest tragedy as it obscures her ability to see things for how they are.
From these deeply fascinating, richly drawn characters emerges a timeless story of power and manipulation, love and its limits. These characters, each with their own fully formed and surprisingly cognizant ideologies, make for a drama of indelible proportions.
Lanthimos, in a keen acknowledgement of the film’s over-the-top qualities ensures that no moment is left unpolished or understated. The entire film roars with a commanding energy; Extravagant set and production design, baroque musical stylings from a full orchestra, and a playful visual style make The Favourite a cinematic feast for the ages.
The Favourite is one of the year’s unmissable movies; it’s rare that a film like this manages to be made, let alone be as good as it is. Don’t miss your chance to experience this exceptional treat.