Yargos Lanthimos, charitably, might be labeled an acquired taste. In fact, his work as a director and writer — he typically directs from his own writing but not for THE FAVOURITE — has proven a taste I have heretofore largely failed to acquire. That paired with my aversion to period films made me less than optimistic about THE FAVOURITE. Sometimes, though, film surprises you.

FAVOURITE: Lady Churchill
Rachel Weisz reclines by the fire in THE FAVOURITE. (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures)

The Idea Behind THE FAVOURITE

In the England of 1708, the monarchy remains alive but hardly what could be called well. Fifty-three-year-old Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) has begun her sixth year on the throne. She spends most of that time vacillating between being grief stricken over the deaths of all her children, enraged by the sound of music, wracked by gout, and utterly disconnected from affairs of state. The only way she seems to get through every day is because of her mean-spirited friend Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Churchill tells the Queen how to fight a war with France, how to treat the Parliament including the jealous and casually cruel Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), and how to do her makeup properly. Sarah also, on occasion, helps the Queen experience orgasms.

FAVOURITE: That candlelight
Emma Stone rocks a warm glow in a moment from THE FAVOURITE. (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Into this less than ideal situation comes Churchill’s disgraced cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). Sold be her gambling-addicted father as a kind of sex slave, Abigail has finally freed herself from the arrangement. She has run to the castle in the hopes that Sarah will take pity on her. If she does, Abigail reasons, her cousin will find her a safe place. From there, perhaps a return to high society might be possible. When Hill overhears her cousin taking credit for a natural cure for gout that Hill herself made, everything changes. Abigail decides to go above her station to let the queen know her part in the relieving agent. From then on, the two cousins increasingly try to outdo the other in manipulating the Queen to be her most beloved and trusted. It gets ugly. Very ugly.

Writing THE FAVOURITE

A big part of my enjoyment of this film over Lanthimos’s previous efforts might lie with him using a script that came from something other than his own pen. THE FAVOURITE screenplay from first-time writer Deborah Davis and predominantly television writer Tony McNamara is quick, black as pitch funny, and manages to be just anachronistic enough to capture the tone of the time without sacrificing the audience’s ability to understand the tone and meaning of the dialogue easily. The script is also a lot warmer than previous Lanthimos efforts.

He tends to favor cold people doing cruel calculated things in world’s marked by unfeeling indifference, even when things are at their worst. THE FAVOURITE had plenty of people being cruel and calculating but it comes from a different place. They are driven by love, lust, jealousy, anger, and flashes of burning hate. Their passions drive them in a way that feels unusual in the context of Lanthimos’s oeuvre. As a result, the “world” of the picture feels alive, active, in a way that Lanthimos films just never have to me before now.

FAVOURITE: Pale for sure
Olivia Coleman does not believe it is good to be Queen in THE FAVOURITE. (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Casting The Leads of THE FAVOURITE

The Weisz/Stone/Colman trifecta does brilliant work here. Each performer tunes their characterization to make them uniquely slippery. The Queen is pathetic in a multitude of ways. However, she is also incredibly powerful, willing to be cruel, and more than little monstrous in fulfilling her desires. Churchill is mean, wildly manipulative, and unwilling to have her ideas questioned. Besides that though, she clearly has genuine affection and perhaps even desire for her friend the Queen. Hill proves increasingly ruthless and, when in power, mostly disinterested in doing much more than partying and exerting her will on others. On the other hand, she is terrified of being powerless once again and did seem to legitimately just want a safe place of refuge but her cousin would not stop trying to best her.

To bring forth those layers believably is a tremendous task but each actor does so with aplomb.

FAVOURITE: Hartley
Nicholas Hoult takes his seat amongst his fellow Lords in a scene from THE FAVOURITE. (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Casting the Rest of THE FAVOURITE Callsheet

The world of THE FAVOURITE is a world where women rule and men mostly exist as barely-there accessories, lust objects, or so self-involved as to be ineffective fops. The only exception is Hoult’s darkly delightful Hartley. I have like Hoult in other films, starting with ABOUT A BOY, but I cannot recall a looser more freewheeling role for him. He seems to be having a blast with the character and it is impossible not to join in the fun with him when he’s onscreen.

FAVOURITE: Fisheye
Olivia Coleman addresses her Parliament in an example of THE FAVOURITE’s love of fisheye. (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Filming of THE FAVOURITE

One place that I never had a hard time seeing how good Lanthimos is is in his direction. Oddly, in my favorite of his films, his direction might also be his weakest. It is not bad, to be clear. Not by any stretch of the imagination. He has an incredible eye and his shot composition remains excellent. Particularly worthy of applause is the lighting. His use of natural and candlelight for much of the film gives the castle a kind of dreary pall despite the sumptuousness that fills every space. Moreover, the deep inky blacks make its sprawl still feel claustrophobic.

However, his use of the fishbowl lens starts to lose its power somewhere in the second act. Still, he sticks with it to the bitter end, seemingly unaware of how ineffective it is growing. In his last shot, though, I feel Lanthimos makes his biggest mistake and feels the most like the director I recognize from his earlier work. Without giving too much away, it involves the Queen reasserting her power on Abigail merging with an image of tightly packed rabbits.

In the single — but prolonged — moment, the director takes what had heretofore been subtly revealed in the above-mentioned performances and makes it thundering text. After deftly wielding scalpel for most THE FAVOURITE’s running time, he suddenly elects to pick up a sledgehammer. Thankfully it is but a minute or two, but it nonetheless sent me into the parking lot with a bitter taste that could have easily been avoided.

FAVOURITE- Bad makeup
Rachel Weisz (back turned to camera) lets Olivia Coleman know she’s looking a little, well…badger-y in a scene from THE FAVOURITE. (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures)

That’s a Wrap!

Despite that misstep though, THE FAVOURITE is a wonderfully nasty treat. It is not the kind of movie to make one feel good about the state of the world or humanity. For those in search of flawed humans behaving badly with wit and zeal though, THE FAVOURITE is a delight.

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