The Favourite (21 December 2018)

The latest film from director Yorgos Lanthimos, the man behind The Lobster and The Killing of the Sacred Deer, is slightly less surreal than his other films, which could be ascribed partly to its historical setting and partly to having separate screenwriters. A film many years in the making (Deborah Davis first penned the script two decades ago), The Favourite transports the viewer to 18th century England. The film is far more concerned with telling a compelling story than with historical facts, but because its colorful characters are so compelling, it never feels artificial or inauthentic.

The film takes place in an England at war with the French. Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) is a physically and emotionally fragile monarch who deeply desires the approval of her subjects and confidantes. She relies heavily on her advisor Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), whom she has known since childhood, both personally and professionally. Sarah is unapologetically blunt and brilliant. She does not so much advise Queen Anne as instruct her, making decisions about battles to be had and money to be spent. Although the palace is far from calm and quiet– separate political parties vie for power, with differing opinions about the best way to handle the war and the debts it is accruing– it seems that there is a stability of sorts, a balance that has been achieved.

This balance is disrupted with the arrival of Abigail (Emma Stone), a cousin of Sarah’s, fallen from noble status due to her father’s choices. Abigail arrives to the castle covered in mud but bright-eyed, described by Sarah at one point as “too kind for [her] own good.” She begins her time in a grueling position as a chambermaid, but before long falls into the queen’s good graces.

One is not always sure where the motivations of the characters lie. For at least the first half of the film, the viewer may find themself looking for the subtlest of cues to hint at where Sarah and Abigail’s loyalties and aspirations lie– are wide eyes due to horror, or the arrival of an opportunity? Is a smile from satisfaction with a plan going correctly, or from genuine joy? As the loyalties of characters shift consistently through the film, the viewer may find that their loyalties and sympathies shift as well. At times this feels dizzying, but it’s exhilarating to be sure.

It is refreshing to see a film written by a woman, that centers on the dynamics between three women who are each powerful in different ways. The actresses are all incredible, in their individual scenes but also in the ways in which they interact with one another, flowing in and out of one another’s favor depending on the scene. One finds themself looking at Stone and Weisz carefully, examining their expressions for any hints of actions yet to come. Each character is compelling, and at least at times sympathetic, especially Coleman’s unstable Queen Anne. There are of course men in the film, but usually they play a secondary part, utilized in one way or another by the intelligent female characters, or entangled in the plots of the women in one way or another. This is a refreshing change from so much of how women and men are portrayed on screen, and it’s managed to be done in a way that doesn’t feel at all out of place in a historical setting.

The film is aided by its score and soundtrack, similar to that found in other films by Yorgos Lanthimos– Organs boom, strings swell regally, or vibrate rapidly. The strings are especially evocative, aiding often to eerie discomfort that is present in so many scenes– the source of which is often not entirely clear.

The film excels at inciting discomfort. Often, scenes that leave the viewer incredibly tense end only in a release of breath, whereas tense and disturbing moments often seem to strike the viewer out of nowhere. It is without a doubt an unsettling film, but manages to also be at times hilarious– there were multiple moments in which the theater was filled with laughter. Often the disturbing moments manage to coincide with the humour, and it is perhaps the way in which the film leaves the viewer continuously slightly on edge and disarmed that allows it to be as funny as it is.

The plot twists and turns in unnerving, intriguing ways, many of which I would love to discuss on paper but fear spoiling even the slightest of twists. The film is worth seeing, especially for those who are fans of Lanthimos’s earlier works. Even those who felt alienated or too thrown off by those earlier works may find The Favourite more palatable, more grounded. At its center, this is a film about the relationships between women, both to one another and to the society in which they exist.

A Note From The Author:

When I started writing reviews, I couldn’t figure out when, if at all, to mention the state of my mental health. Was I clever enough to somehow work it into weekly reviews? The answer to that is a decided “no”, and so here we are. I probably won’t include after-thoughts such as this one every week, but I think that there are some things worth talking about.

I think I mentioned in my introductory post that this project would be a good way of holding me accountable for plans and making sure I got out of the apartment, and this was absolutely true this week. Even the fact that I had made plans with someone might not have been enough to get me out– even as I went out the door I was tempted to cancel. I felt like I was crumbling all day, and the thought of walking, and talking to someone, and driving, sounded paralyzing. Knowing that I had to see a movie this week, however, was just enough to get me moving.

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