Yorgos Lanthimos loves to make his audiences uncomfortable. Not to punish them; he’s not Lars von Trier. But the Greek filmmaker, who’s ascended to the Mt. Olympus of cinephile demigods in the decade since his breakout, Dogtooth (2009), does count discomfort and disorientation among the most reliable tools in his directorial kit. So it’s bit disconcerting, the unfamiliar sensation provoked by his new movie, The Favourite: Is this the first Yorgos Lanthimos film that can be called genuinely fun?
A frothy comedy would be a sucker punch in its own right coming immediately after The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (2017) Lanthimos’ bone-chilling domestic thriller. The Favourite is more than that. It’s got the venomous insults, the nimble comebacks, the backstabbing, the sex, the costumes, the sets, and everything else you could ever want from a viciously witty period piece. But this deliciously nasty riff on the Jane Austen tradition also has an absurdist streak that, along with its aggressively stylized camerawork, provides an unpredictable high-wire thrill all its own.
Broadchurch’s Olivia Colman stars as Queen Anne, the early-18th century British monarch whose extremely close friendship with noblewoman Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), Duchess of Marlborough, raised eyebrows even in their lifetime. As the film opens, Lady Sarah’s place as “first lady of the bedchamber” and the queen’s political stand-in is unchallenged. Everyone, even the Prime Minister, must go through her if they want an audience with Anne, who the severe Sarah alternately lavishes with affection and scolds like a child. And the seemingly weak-minded Anne lives up (or down, as the case may be) to Sarah’s patronizing treatment, spending most of her time in her chamber either stuffing down handfuls of cake and screaming at her attendants or crying in agony during one of her frequent attacks of gout. Then Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives at court, pushed out of a carriage face-first into a puddle of mud and shit.
Abigail, also based on a real person, is Sarah’s cousin, reduced to working as a scullery maid after her father gambled her away in a card game. Although her outward demeanor is sweet and unassuming, Abigail is far more dangerous than her cousin—Sarah, for all her sharp-tongued bluntness, doesn’t believe in duplicity. Abigail, meanwhile, is a natural at it, and soon she’s wormed her way into Sarah’s place at Anne’s side. Stone is a standout as the whip-smart Abigail, her expressive face hinting at the selfish person hiding underneath her flattery with a simple arch of an eyebrow. Abigail also gets some of the film’s most delightfully dirty jokes, although Colman, whose performance similarly works on multiple levels, also gets a few shockingly blunt lines in. All three members of the core ensemble are excellent, but Colman’s performance only gets more fascinating as the film goes on, revealing the authoritarian monarch inside of this infirm middle-aged woman.
Besides being his most accessible work to date, The Favourite is also Lanthimos’ first foray into an all-out period piece, traits that can presumably be attributed at least in part to the fact that this is also his first film written by other people. In The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, Lanthimos sharpened his provocations on the cold, clean lines of modern architecture, and in The Lobster, he muffled the bleak humor with anonymous hotel-room drapes. Here, he stuffs nearly every frame with luxurious paintings and tapestries, silver platters groaning with decadent feasts, and elaborate brocade gowns. The majority of the film is shot from extreme low angles, rendering the bejeweled and heavily painted actors larger than life. You can practically feel Ken Russell smiling down from Baroque heaven, particularly in a pointedly frivolous duck race (yes, a literal duck race) filmed in indulgent slow motion. This excess is contrasted with the disease and filth that crept into even the most noble lives in the days before antibiotics and indoor plumbing—the most primal of the film’s discomforts.
Lanthimos’ approach in The Favourite is modern, disorienting, and reliant on dizzying, heavy-handed flourishes: fisheye lenses, Steadicam, panning, dolly shots, rapid montage. He even occasionally combines techniques, like in a shot of Stone furiously stomping down the long hallway to Colman’s bedchamber that utilizes a nauseating fisheye pan. Like a shark, The Favourite is always moving, and always on the verge of all-out frenzy.
Adding to the sense of unpredictability is the film’s cheeky reversal of traditional gender roles: In The Favourite, the men are frivolous and ineffective in wigs and heels—“a man must look pretty,” Nicholas Hoult’s dandyish Harley advises his friend Masham (Joe Alwyn) in his quest to win Abigail’s heart—and the women serious and authoritative in waistcoats and leather armor. Combined with the film’s lesbian love triangle (hinted at in history, here made explicit), it’s a startlingly fresh approach, and relatively historically accurate to boot. The film’s underlying themes of casual cruelty and petty jealousy among the idle aristocracy are more familiar, and The Favourite does spin its wheels a bit late in the second act as the histrionic rivalries start to cool—until Lanthimos once again sets the audience reeling with a sinister, psychologically loaded final shot. We warned you not to get too comfortable.