NYFF Review: The Favourite

(Lanthimos, 2018)

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Indie darling director Yorgos Lanthimos returns to the big screen with another darkly humorous art house flick, The Favourite. The Favourite stars Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, the Queen of England in the early 18th century who maintains a close relationship her domineering friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who has much influence over Queen Anne and her political decisions. But when Lady Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) starts working in the castle as a servant, the two cousins begin to fight to win the Queen’s favor.

Lanthimos’ films can be a bit of an acquired taste. Despite the fact his previous two films (2016’s The Lobster and last year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer) did not break into the mainstream, they did succeed critically and were able to find an audience with the arthouse crowd. The Favourite may be able to bridge that gap given the star power of its female leads, specifically Emma Stone, who is hot off of her acclaimed performance as Billie Jean King in Battle of the Sexes and her Oscar-winning turn as Mia in La La Land. In The Favourite, Stone is given the most well-defined arc of the three leads and her evolution throughout the film is perhaps the most enjoyable to watch. She utilizes her typical, snarky “Emma Stone-y” quirks, which seem out of place for the time period. However, the film’s style prioritizes emotion over historical accuracy, giving it a little more leeway in that department.

But it is Colman’s performance as Queen Anne that is the standout here. She interprets the madness and stress of being a royal figure as tragedy without missing out of Lanthimos’ trademark comedy. Rachel Weisz’s performance as Lady Sarah is also strong, though she doesn’t have as much screen time as Queen Anne or Abigail.

The script is full of engaging twists and turns with a throughline of political intrigue. First-time feature film writer Deborah Davis wrote the screenplay along with Australian playwright/screenwriter Tony McNamara, marking the first time Lanthimos has directed someone else’s script since 2001’s My Best Friend. It still feels a lot like Lanthimos though, as the script utilizes dry humor that is reminiscent of Lanthimos’ other work. And while there are clear deviations from the historical accuracy of the film’s time period, it still uses the period’s vernacular without any emotion getting lost in translation.

The consistent style and tone of the film is a testament to Lanthimos as a director, given the variations of comedy and drama all within the constraints of being a period piece. This includes a very unusual typography that is utilized to denote the different sections of the film, which you may have seen used in the film’s posters and other promotional materials. His directorial style is also quite different from your typical 18th century period piece. Extremely wide-angle lenses are used to greatly distort the grand, majestic sets and tracking shots are often used to a produce subtly eerie effect. This contrast creates a unique tone that is greater than the sum of its parts, occasionally going a bit too far and drawing attention away from the story. Lanthimos creates images that are striking on their own, but they don’t necessarily enhance the emotion of the film. The most egregious case of style over substance in the film comes at the very end, which is a shame because it’s your final impression of the film before you walk out into the theater. It is a bold stylistic choice, but not one that ultimately elevates the film.

That being said, Lanthimos proclivity for risk-taking is more commendable than giving us what we’ve come to expect, even if those stylistic choices don’t always work. Overall, The Favourite serves as a fun showcase for its wonderful actresses and displays a unique vision from a filmmaker who has made a name for himself by doing the unexpected. ★★★★

 
Karol Nowak