What’s Up at the Movies: Review of ‘The Favourite’

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Films set in a particular historical moment, often known as period dramas, have become an institution of British cinema. Setting a film in the past is a common practice everywhere of course, but England’s many eras are so narratively rich and stylistically distinctive that they have practically become genres in themselves.

Because Great Britain’s many monarchs are of particular interest to filmmakers, audiences have come to associate British period dramas with extravagant costumes, posh accents and political intrigue, and a mode of storytelling that aids immersion. These expectations encourage precision and attention to detail more than attempts at innovation — any kind of blatant anachronism, such as Sofia Coppola’s use of modern music in her 2006 film Marie Antoinette, can be jarring and criticized for breaking the spell.

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Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, easily his most accessible film to date, resembles a traditional period drama in many ways. Set in the 18th Century court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) as Britain wars with the French, the film follows the arrival of Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a disgraced former lady, and her struggle to wrest the Queen’s favor from Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), Duchess of Marlborough and Hill’s cousin. Filmed on location at Hatfield House, Lanthimos shot with only natural or candlelight, and he distinctly marks the historical moment with elaborate dresses and towering powdered wigs.

He also includes some contemporary elements, including an odd dance scene and phrases like “career suicide,” choices that might be considered risky in other films. Lanthimos, however, is not a director who works within the realm of the normal. Everything from the rhythm of his editing to the way his characters interact gives the impression that something is not quite right about this world we are seeing, and small instances of historical inaccuracy blend right in with his other idiosyncrasies. Rather than aim for familiarity, Lanthimos uses strangeness to captivate audiences, an atypical approach to period drama that allows him to ignore many of its conventions.

Though he often alters the rules of reality to enhance the absurdity of his films, such as making it possible for people to become animals in The Lobster, the frequent ridiculousness of life at court made such changes unnecessary. Intercut with the primary storylines are scenes of men in tall wigs and heavy makeup dancing, racing ducks and throwing oranges at a naked man to entertain themselves. Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), Sarah’s political rival who wears the tallest of wigs and the heaviest of makeup, is somehow supposed to represent the interests of the Queen’s subjects.

The Queen herself is spoiled, impulsive and scarred by illness and tragedy, yet she possesses an absolute power that leaves the court wary of her everchanging whims. Lanthimos takes the elegance and decadence glorified by so many traditional period films and turns them inside-out, reminding audiences that these figures’ humanity comes with its fair share of repugnance and irrationality.

From this assertion of humanity’s duality emerge the three female leads, and the triangular relationships of Anne, Sarah and Abigail are as powerful and nuanced as the performances that fuel them. Anne and Sarah have known each other since childhood, their love defined by Sarah’s brutal honesty and Anne’s need for constant affection, a dynamic that occasionally appears controlling and unhealthy. Abigail grows close to Anne with flattery and enables her self-destructive indulgence, but she also seems capable of empathizing with Anne’s deep emotional pain in a way Sarah cannot, making Anne feel heard and understood. Sarah initially takes Abigail into her confidence, but the latter’s ambition sets off a venomous, possessive struggle that gradually reveals their true selves. It is often difficult to tell whether they are orbiting the Queen or circling each other, two predators waiting for an opening to strike.

Motivated by the #MeToo movement, Lanthimos wanted to highlight women in power who were complex and contradictory, and the interactions of these three actresses are by far the film’s greatest strength. Too mercurial to be defined in terms of good and bad, hero and villain, The Favourite is instead driven by the need to identify the titular character. Just as the Queen’s favor shifts between the two women, the audience’s sympathies are constantly tested as they try to choose a favorite of their own.

Lanthimos’ absurdist lens makes this film worth seeing with a crowd, since screenings are filled with odd noises as people try to decide whether to gasp, laugh or cringe. Seek this one out — Lanthimos is not everyone’s cup of tea, but his unique take on British period drama is worth experiencing for yourself.       

WhatsUpRI Rating: 4 out of 5

WhatsUp Ratings Guide
5- Excellent – Don’t miss it
4- Very Good – Well worth your time
3- Good – Solid, but not earthshattering
2- Fair – Not quite ready for prime time
1- Poor – Don’t waste your time or money