The Favourite is a dark comedy that manages to strike an engaging balance between shock and awe. With impeccable production, acting, and direction, it is among the best films of the year.
Historical dramas are not supposed to be like this. They tend to be artistic creations, celebrating the past with a certain artistry and sense of dignity. They give us a glimpse of what was, and exist as an escape from our modern dilemmas. On the surface, The Favourite checks all of the boxes. Impeccable 18th century costumes and set designs. Wonderfully colorful makeup and hairstyles. Speech and social arrangements correct for the time period it is set in. Despite this effort, there’s nothing “correct” about The Favourite. It is not at all what it seems. The Favourite is actually a comedy set up to look like a historical drama. A raucous, harsh, biting comedy that hides its teeth beneath a classy exterior. It is, in all accounts, glorious.
The Favourite is a farce that doesn’t mock its subject matter. It isn’t making fun of feudal society. It doesn’t make any particularly poignant connections to modern life. In every sense that a fairy tale takes your hand and whisks you away to some far-off land full of enchantment and adventure, The Favourite does something similar. Except this far-away world is cruel and depressing. It’s drury and smothering. Instead of being whisked away on some romantic journey or getting caught up in a heroic crusade, the film focuses on what is essentially a prolonged feud between two people who don’t offer many redeeming qualities. It is a type of escapism we rarely see; one that takes enjoyment from stomping around in the mud rather than feigning over frilly dresses and historical context.
In the early 18th century, Queen Anne rules England. She is alone, of ill health, and doesn’t have any heirs. To make matters worse, the empire is engaged in a war against the French, and resources are in short supply. The queen’s adviser is Sarah Churchill, who takes over most of the day-to-day duties of running the kingdom as the Queen in mostly unable to do so. Sarah is more than just a friend to the Queen and has her ear on all important matters, an enviable position to those in the court. Abigail Hill is Sarah’s cousin, and she travels to the palace to find work. After providing care for the Queen during one of her episodes of gout, Abigail begins to earn the Queen’s eye and starts to exploit it. Gradually she begins to take the Queen’s trust away from Sarah, who realizes her position slipping and ruthlessly fights back. The two women engage in an all out war for control over the Queen, and in many ways, the kingdom.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos is known for his off-kilter comedies which could also be taken as tragedies. The Favourite can be classified in the same way - often there is a question as to whether we should be laughing or gasping. Either way, the film thrives when it is unexpected. That is what Yorgos does so well. He plays off of audience expectations. Yorgos frames his picture like an elaborate painting, full of exquisite details. But Yorgos is more concerned about the cracks in the facade. More importantly, he finds a way for us to be interested in them too. Rather than disgusted by his main character’s behaviors, we are cheering them on. Watching his films we find thrills in unexpected places.
I find a lot of commonality between Yorgos’ films and those of Stanley Kubrick in terms of both theme and presentation. Once again, The Favourite is no exception. Like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, The Favourite has incredible production design. The technique of framing every scene like an oil painting is not as obvious as Kubrick’s direction, but the effect is there. In a sense it explores the human element inside the excessivism of the Baroque artistic movement. We have these people who live tormented lives against a backdrop of wealth and overwrought stylings. Yorgos even employs the technique of using candle-lit shots during the night just like Kubrick did. Literally we see the characters in a different light, and at night the world becomes even stranger (interesting) than it was during the day. And just like Barry Lyndon, Sarah and Abigail are rogues not necessarily acting against the social establishment, but taking advantage of it.
The story itself is fairly straightforward, which allows more focus to be spent on the characters and their environment. The film is presented in chapters, with each title taken from the dialogue in each chapter. The stinted structure does make for some uneven pacing, but it also enhances the films’ off-kilter delivery. Indeed, much of the film is designed to make the audience uneasy. The characters inhabit giant rooms full of splendor, but nothing is comfortable. Yorgos allows his audience to observe the scenery through fish-eye lenses. Characters shout at each other in anguish, and there’s an obsession with bodily excrement. Nothing is supposed to be familiar or expected. It’s a celebration of absurdity which ends up feeling hauntingly real.
Yorgos talent for making his audience revel in the bizarre wouldn’t be as effective without a stellar cast. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are like two boxers trading barbs between clenched teeth. Stone plays her character slyly sweet. She lures and tempts her way to get what she wants. Weisz is more straightforward. She treats her position as an earned privilege, and lack of competition over the years has made her somewhat complacent. In the middle of this competition is Olivia Coleman portraying Queen Anne. She is the highlight of the film - frustrated and boisterous at times, sweet and caring at others. She is a tormented soul prone to bouts of mental breakdown, but not without the whereabouts to understand her position and the two women fighting for it. Coleman gives the queen a sense of morbid fascination with the situation, which gradually fades to a state of exhaustion as her loneliness gets only more apparent.
The Favourite deserves praise for the way it depicts its trio of leading ladies. This is not a film that empowers them in the traditional manner. It doesn’t put them on a pedestal and celebrate their bravery against evil or wit to solve a problem plaguing humanity. Instead it finds their value in a different way. Like many people, these women are only out to make their own lives better. They are beset by tragedy and misfortune. They have a desperation, and the film encourages the ruthlessness necessary to claw their way to the top. Here, against the threat of squalor, their strengths are on full display. We wonder how far they are willing to go to get what they want. The men of the film are also playing the same game, but they’re not on the same level. Despite their titles of nobility and leadership positions in government, they are all but powerless compared to the leading ladies.
The very best movies transcend their appearances. The Favourite may not have the most meaningful message to deliver, it isn’t necessarily cutting edge in any regard, and the impeccably detailed production might suggest some sort of lavish period-drama. But The Favourite goes against our expectations.This is a film designed to entertain us, but it does so in an almost outlandish way. Like ancient Romans cheering on the Gladiators, there is fun to behold in the struggle of others. It is a ruthless spectacle orchestrated to high proficiency. It is cruel and soothing, equal parts pleasure and pain. In every sense of the word, The Favorite is a devilish good time.