Yorgos Lanthimos is a filmmaker who avoids unconventional storytelling to convey a message about the fragility of human emotions and our failing abilities to overcome our shortcomings as we grasp for sanity. It’s often done with whispers of dark humor and loads of damaged characters crawling up a descending staircase in an attempt to escape their own mortality. Yet the surreal atmosphere that surrounds all of this is what keeps you from drowning in despair.
The concept of finding oneself and figuring out where one should be, and how to get there, is told by this director in such a strange and exciting way that you are at first confused and then captivated. Lanthismos’ style is not for everyone. If you gravitate to movies that are more straightforward and avoid abstract plot devices, you may have trouble getting into his films. Which is what makes his latest feature so interesting. It still retains his style of character and humor, but it is perhaps the most easily accessible story he’s put forth.
In The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, England is at war with France and Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is struggling to find the next course of action to end the conflict. She is frail and has difficulty concentrating on any one thing for very long. She attempts to keep her spirits up by playing with her rabbits. Her close friend Sarah (Rachel Weisz) spends time with her and speaks on her behalf regarding matters of state. Sarah is as cunning and ruthless as the male landowners who try to court Queen Anne’s favor. She revels in this position of power and cannot imagine a more pleasant life. Until one day when Abigail (Emma Stone), the daughter of an affluent family that fell on hard times, arrives to seek a job. Her plucky attitude and persistence ingratiate her with both Sarah and Queen Anne. It doesn’t take long before Abigail’s influence begins to threaten Sarah’s way of life, setting off a series of events that can only end in devastation.
My mind was thoroughly prepared to analyze complex human behavior in an abstract format with clever visual metaphors. As this movie unfolded, I realized it wasn’t abstract at all. It does have complex characters. So my brain wasn’t resting, but it was a little more relaxed.
Abigail and Sarah spend a fair amount of time figuring out how best to thwart each other, with clever results, but the movie also gives us quiet moments between these two and more specifically Queen Anne. It’s these scenes that provide the most emotional resonance and connect us to the story. Anne is perhaps the most innocent of the main characters and you constantly see her being taken advantage of by Abigail and Sarah. While you are almost always positive of their intentions, it is Anne’s thoughts that leave us wondering. She can be elated one moment and furious the next, but underneath you know she is filled with a well of emotions and thoughts that she is incapable of dealing with. Olivia Colman does a brilliant job of conveying these parts of her character without explicitly showing them. Abigail and Sarah get glimpses of this when it suits their purpose and ignore the rest when it doesn’t.
The modern humor translates well into this 18th century story. It helped make this world more relatable and kept me engaged the entire time. On top of that are the subtle and not-so subtle attempts by several people to manipulate situations in the hopes of one-upping their adversary. They do this by being nice to their allies, negotiating with their enemies, or just damaging reputations. The conversations among Abigail, Sarah, Queen Anne, and a wealthy landowner named Harley (Nicholas Hoult) are some of the most entertaining interactions I’ve seen all year.
The world that Yorgos Lanthimos created is well-constructed. You feel the walls of this shuttered society built around tradition and wealth. It’s also corrupted by decadence and deceit. The servants’ lives and the impoverished people outside serve as our window into Abigail’s motivation to climb the ladder of power as quickly as possible. Politics play an ever-important presence, with lives on the line, yet it always seems like more of a nuisance to everyone involved. Like a boring chess match that they are forced to play, but determined to win. What is more pressing is the drama in the castle and around the throne. There are many players vying for attention from the queen and they all will get their hands dirty to do it. Queen Anne, having endured many tragedies in her life, is no match against this conniving bunch.
The performances of Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz in their respective roles is noteworthy and will earn Oscar contention. The bigger star in this movie I believe is Olivia Colman. There is so much depth and dimension to her character. The entire cast is wonderful, but Colman, as the queen is inclined to do, commands my attention.
The Favourite is an absolute delight. It’s not some flashy blockbuster and will probably be ignored by mainstream audiences; but if you’re exhausted by CGI fare, sequels, and remakes, this movie will be a breathe of fresh air. I recommend this movie for the hilarious scenes, the terrific acting, and the battle of wits. Although it may not be 100% historically accurate, watching this movie has shown me that the conflict between coworkers in an 18th century English kingdom is no different than an office in 20th century America. Maybe less rabbits.
About The Favourite
Synopsis: In early 18th century England, a frail Queen Anne occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah governs the country in her stead. When a new servant Abigail arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah.
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Writer: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Stars: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult
Runtime: 1 Hour, 59 Minutes