Runtime: 1 hour 59 minutes
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, and Nicholas Hoult
The Favourite is the latest romp from Greek satirist Yorgos Lanthimos. Taking a stark departure from the usually modern setting characteristic of his previous English language films The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), Lanthimos’ newest film dives into 18th century England for a playfully volatile love triangle between Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her intimate political confidant Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and Lady Sarah’s tragically misfortuned niece Abigail (Emma Stone). What transpires in the film’s brisk two hour runtime is not only another visceral examination of existential contradictions inherent to modernity, but is the acclaimed director’s best work to date, if not his masterpiece.
Historically, I’ve found Elizabethan/Georgian period dramas, thematically, to be too measured and sanitized to hold my interest in any compelling way. While I can often times appreciate the “time travel” effect of watching such films – imagining living amongst the people in that distant time period – but the frivolity brought on by the dishonest historical depiction guts my ability to connect on the same empathic level I’m able to with other genres. If you could promise me every period piece could have the same naturalistic verisimilitude and artistic detail that graces The Favourite, I’d be first in line every opening night.
Maybe this is me getting older and actively becoming more and more interested in world history, but the first shot of the film is overwhelming with detail, almost to a disturbing effect. Queen Anne’s royal garbs and dresses are beautifully ornate displays that threaten to intimidate the viewer as if they were an English commoner in the room: co-stars Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone also wear a number of extravagant costumes encapsulating their character throughout the film. The costumes, as great as they are, only compliment the film’s total visual aesthetic. We spend a vast majority of the film in Queen Anne’s massive royal palace. Anne is quite the homebody so she spends most of her time in her master bedroom, relying on the network of secret passages ways built into the walls to move in her home in privacy. The sets are breathtaking, highlighted by the large film aspect ratio and spacious cinematography. The look and fell of the film is spectacular and could be worth the price of admission alone, but still the main selling points here are the leading trio performances from Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone.
As you would probably expect with a movie about one of the Queens of England, The Favourite is thoroughly concerned with politics, just not so much the politics of governing England. Sure the plot majorly revolves around a crucial decision to deploy offensive infantry or not and inquire peace, which would require a significant land tax increase if the former is taken, but the central conflict is a political gridlock between these three women, each of whom bring a particular complexity to their respective fights for agency. For Abigail (Stone), that “agency” is the agency to live a secure, dignified life free from the threat of rape or death. If this film had a singular protagonist, it would probably be Stone’s character. Lady Sarah (Weisz) is Queen Anne’s dearest and closest friend, advisor, and secret mistress. Despite the power disparity between the two, it’s made clear early on that she’s the one calling the shots in England’s political matters, not so much the Queen. As the favourite, Sarah’s intimate relationship with the Queen grants her proxy rule over the country in most instances and guarantees her the highest freedom and privilege attainable without being the Queen herself. Queen Anne (Colman) has grown frail over the years, requiring constant medical supervision for her severe case of gout and especially attentive emotional support for the years of trauma suffered from losing 17 children, and so she seeks agency for emotional respite from her torment and good company to pass the time, all the things Lady Sarah has provided to her for a significant portion of her life.
Words can’t begin to describe what Colman, Weisz, and Stone achieve in harmony, and what’s so impressive with the narrative itself is how it uses each character in service of the larger examination. When you’re watching the film, it’s impossible to pinpoint who the sole protagonist is. We’re so used to narratives, across multiple mediums, having only one main character, but there’s no universal law saying you have to only have one main character in a story, as rare as it may be. There are no single “protagonists” in real life, just disparate souls doing what they know how to survive.
The Favourite really surprised me; from the career-defining performances from all three lead actresses and the rest of the film’s supporting cast, to it’s impeccable set and costume design, to its creative commentary on modernity and existential paradox, this is the closest thing to time traveling to 1708 you can get without imaginary technology. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve seen all the movies I’m going to see for 2018, so I can confidently declare The Favourite my favorite film of the year (sorry had to do it).