James C. Clay // Film Critic
Yorgos Lanthimos is a filmmaker whose existence is cause for celebration. He creates singluar worlds with acerbic and left-of-center humor that will be celebrated for decades. But until that day comes, let’s praise his latest film: THE FAVOURITE.
This is a hateful little comedy dressed up in beautiful pre-Georgian costumes and setting, but with a “Lanthi-mized” twist that is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year, and certainly has a trifecta of brilliant actors bringing the subversive material to life. If you are looking to get into Lanthimos, now is the time to do it, because THE FAVOURITE is his most accessible film to date.
Set in 18th century England, THE FAVOURITE centers on a lesbian love triangle that turns into a toxic tryst fast. Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) is the bumbling piece of royalty who has been victimized by personal tragedies and a nasty case of gout. We hardly hear whispers of the woman she was before, but she is in no state to run the country. She is cared for by her most trusted advisor, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who essentially runs the daily operations in Queen Anne’s stead. With sneering glances and licorice sharp wit, dressed up in a sophisticated package, Lady Sarah has a handle on managing Anne’s antics, which run the gamut of eating and then vomiting up cake, raising rabbits, complaining, threatening suicide, and, yes, even lobster racing.
The two women have a longstanding, fluid dynamic that stretches from employer/employee, to caretaker, best friends and secret lovers. It complicates the state of their relationship but allows for well-wrought humor when Lady Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives on the scene. She’s been disgraced and is looking to climb her way back up the social ladder and with an intellect that’s keen on manipulating. Abigail is a woman who is in complete control of her actions as she’s bewitching the men of the estate, including the buffoonish Lord Harley (a nearly unrecognizable Nicholas Hoult), who’s dressed in heels, makeup, and apparently smells like a “79-year-old woman’s juju” – whatever that means.
The script written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara is hilarious from start to finish. People in my audience, in Austin, TX, were cackling at the slightest of facial expressions. The screenwriting duo mine humor from comments thrown out like venomous compliments. Every gesture is part of a game between Sarah and Abigail for the affections of Queen Anne’s favor. Yet, the question is: Whose game is nastier? There is tenderness and understanding written into each one of these women, who are just trying to survive as the patriarchy at play is looking to deject each one of them, no matter how powerful.
This may be American audiences’ first exposure to Olivia Coleman, who has done great work in England for years (BROAD CHURCH, PEEP SHOW). She allows Queen Anne to become a detestable, yet tragic figure to watch unravel. All three actors are destined to become Oscar nominees for their work in this film, but Stone is the only American in the cast – and while she handles snark well, this is a step-up for the Oscar winner whose rosy-cheeked smile shifts to something sinister in the most delicious ways. Weisz brings a regal sense of controlled confidence to Sarah, who, deep down, is worried about her social standing and her husband (SHERLOCK’s Mark Gattis), who has gone off to war. Weisz brings a stoicism to Lady Sarah as she’s a true soldier of social ladders, one best not trifle with.
The dynamics at play are ripe with subtext regarding gender politics and women in power, and Lanthimos plays these themes with visual splendor. There are rich tapestries of carved wood and lush oil paintings hanging upon the floral wallpaper with beautiful checkered floors of the pre-Georgian era. THE FAVOURITE is a furiously funny film that many should take a chance on. Lanthimos is an expert at having his actors subvert expectations. While this movie may not be for everyone, it’s a bold piece of filmmaking with three of the most sumptuous performances of the year, or any year for that matter.