Prove your humanity

Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek director of the punishing dramas Dogtooth and The Alps, was not someone who I had pegged for Hollywood success. However, following his English language films The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, he seems to have made a successful migration to the American studio system while many other mildly challenging filmmakers struggle to fund their projects. Lanthimos’ inexplicable mainstream success seems sure to continue with The Favourite—a brutal, perverse period-piece, with a savage sense of humour. Far from a stuffy costume drama, this black comedy is Lanthimos’ most approachable film for new audiences, and arguably one of his best.

Set in the early 18th century (although the film never uses an expository title card), the film drops you in to the world of political machinations of the British upper class during a war with the French. Presiding over the throne is Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), surrounded by acolytes vying for her favour. Suffering from years of tragic circumstances and a bad case of gout, Anne is largely uninterested in the war and politics, preferring to let her confidant and secret lover Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) handle the details. Complicating matters is Sarah’s poor, disgraced younger cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), who arrives looking for employment and finds herself at the bottom of the food chain. Eager to escape from the life of a servant, she quickly starts to ingratiate herself to the Queen and regain her former status, much to Sarah’s dismay.

What follows is a power struggle and love triangle that involves duck races, land taxes, 17 pet rabbits, solid amounts of mud, blood, vomit, and a wildly anachronistic dance sequence with moves that wouldn’t be out of place in Northbridge at 2am.

The move to historical fiction hasn’t lessened Lanthimos’ taste for the absurd, with many bizarre sequences and oddball characters used as jabs against the political system. However, the film mostly ignores the details of policy and governance and instead focuses on the dangerous but entertaining dance between Queen Anne, Sarah, and Abigail. As the film progresses, power dynamics and audience sympathies shift, as characters show new dimensions. This is a study of power and relationships on an intimate level, and how, within a system, genuine connections are difficult to gauge. This also mirrors the way the characters treat politics—an abstract game of chess, rather than something with real tangible effects on the people. This is familiar territory for Lanthimos, who has explored the bounds of relationships and family in all his other films, but with The Favourite he still manages to find a compelling and generally funny take on them.

The film belongs to the three women at its core, who gleefully embrace the backstabbing and grotesquery of Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s meaty script. The restrictions of the time period seem to be liberating for the performers and the director. While the acting maintains a lot of Lanthimos’ monotone and stiffness (perfected by Colin Farrell in his other English language films), he lifts the restraints on the actors to an extent which allows more physical expression than seen in his previous work. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan frequently uses wide angle and fish eye lenses, giving the actors a huge frame to play within. Lanthimos often places the actors at a distance from the camera, and the camera movements are precise but have a certain energy of a controlling director cutting a little loose. This also serves to emphasize the peculiarity of the world they reside in, and how quickly and easily it can dwarf them.

Emma Stone, who I’ve felt has coasted along on natural charm in mostly underwritten roles, proves my misgivings wrong in a genuinely great performance. Her charm is still here, now utilised in a far wider range—as an element of personality, but also as a survival tactic, and a mask for an intense desire for power. Rachel Weisz is dependably commanding as the cold and brutally honest Sarah Churchill, a Duchess with the highest political expertise in the film.

Olivia Colman, who will soon appear as Queen Mary in the new season of The Crown, will hopefully start to get the global recognition she deserves after this entrancing performance. At turns hilarious, and other times tragic, she manages to modulate between extreme emotional outbursts and quiet moments of tenderness and sadness. Lanthimos saves most of his close ups for her incredibly expressive face, which projects dissatisfaction and turmoil with nuance.

Nicolas Hoult frequently steals scenes as a scheming opposition leader, hellbent on stopping the war effort, barely able to contain his disdain for the people around him. He’s also the only man who recognises the women’s political power—although his response to this, of course, is to exploit it for his own gain.

The final third of the film slows down the pacing, and the power struggle begins to taper off, leading to a quiet and rather sad finale. At first, I wasn’t quite sure about this last act, and I still think that it could have (at the least) used some more trimming in the edit. However, the ending has grown on me; the final few images have a hypnotic quality that’s difficult to dismiss.

During a year in which Hollywood has scrambled to assert some semblance of feminist credibility through safe, corporate friendly empowerment narratives, The Favourite feels quietly revolutionary in how it allows its female leads to revel in their flawed, transgressive characters. They’re not perfect, idealised figures designed for the studios to nervously point towards as examples of how they can’t be sexist. The thorough horridness of these three women towards one another makes The Favourite a joy to watch—that is when it’s not making you squirm.

The Favourite is out in selected Perth cinemas now.