‘The Favourite’ is a brilliant yet pessimistic character study that’s likely to divide audiences
Those who have seen the past work of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, such as his breakthrough 2009 film “Dogtooth” or his first English language film “The Lobster,” must be somewhat baffled that this arthouse eccentric’s most recent release “The Favourite” has received the most nominations by this year’s Academy Awards — including Best Picture. Despite “Dogtooth” being nominated for best foreign language film at the time, the off-putting nature of this auteur who combines dark satirical comedy with icy cold detachment and dada-esque absurdism seems completely out of step with Hollywood’s conception of what they consider worthy of prestige.
Granted, “The Favourite” is a much more grounded feature that’s rooted in straight-forward storytelling. The audience isn’t asked to dissect as much from the movie’s symbolism, and it’s an 18th-century period costume drama about aristocracy, which is pretty much Oscar catnip. But below the powdered wigs and tight corsets sits a complicated character study about the self-preserving power dynamics that exist within even the most intimate human interactions.
Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne, the widowed heiress of the English empire who’s depressed, physically unwell, and too emotionally and mentally unstable to perform her tasks as a ruler. As a war is brewing with the French, her closest friend and secret lover Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) is trying to manage the kingdom through means of manipulation, and in doing so, has become the most influential and powerful person within the governmental structure of their time. Enter Abigail (Emma Stone), a younger, fresh-faced servant, who after learning the true nature of Lady Sarah’s relationship with the mercurial Queen, uses her wits and her charm to advance her own position into Queen Anne’s good graces.
Lanthimos is especially adept and perceptive when it comes to how he deals with the inherent comedy of our bumbling, flawed human interactions. He’s nearly obsessed with the arbitrary nature of societal norms and how we function in them. In the case of “The Lobster” and “Dogtooth,” he approaches this obsession through the means of heightened parable. This time around, while indulging lavish sets and costumes, he’s zeroes in on the internal realities of his characters and tests if their personal flaws and pathos extrapolates to the wider complications that society creates within the contracts of manners, structures and institutions. One could argue that this movie is merely a lesbian love triangle, and narratively that is what’s going on, but Lanthimos is more interested in using this romantic trope and the highly mannered setting of Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s screenplay to test his own cynical philosophies about the frail functionality of human cohabitation.
Colman’s Queen Anne is difficult character to like but is ultimately the most sympathetic of the headlining trio. She’s weak willed, moody and not very bright, but she’s actively preyed upon by two younger opportunists, as well as the whole ruling structure of other Lords and Ladies that are complicit in her uselessness as a ruler. The more we learn about her past traumas the more the comedy of her portrayal deepens into sad and tragic dimensionality. Likewise, we learn more about Weiss and Stone’s characters it becomes harder to tell where the lines are drawn in their soul when judging if their behaviors are motivated by opportunity or a repressed yearning to be loved by someone who’s totally willing to be vulnerable with them. Lanthimos observes these relationships with care and honesty even if the premise of his observation doesn’t believe in relationships that are healthy and reciprocal.
“The Favourite” is a tricky, multi-faceted drama that plays out more like the darkest musings of Oscar Wilde than the crowd-pleasing whimsies of Oscar bait. The performances are strong, the period details are convincing, and the skewed perspectives within the camera work creates a visual tension that aligns with the prickly tone of the film. I can’t say for certain that this will be the movie that the Academy decides to set its crown on, but it’s certainly the most challenging and discordant option on the menu.
Cassidy Robinson is a former Idaho State University student with a master’s degree in film studies from Orange County’s Chapman University. He freelances for both print and online outlets.