Yorgos Lanthimos is one of the most unique directors working today. I’ve previously reviewed his film The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but reviewing a Lanthimos film does not do justice to them. They are mad, strange, awkward and completely alien to anyone who doesn’t know what to expect. With The Favourite though, Lanthimos is getting more recognition from mainstream culture, with this being one of his most successful films and being one of the frontrunners for Awards Season. Even with this attention, the film does not lose any of the brilliance of Lanthimos’ other films. In some ways, it may be his best one.
The film takes place during the reign of Queen Anne, during one of the many times England was at war with France, with the focus being on those vying for the favoured position in court. This battle is mainly fought between Sarah Churchill, who is the trusted advisor of Queen Anne and is the main force pushing for the war with France, on one side, and Abigail Hill, who used to hold a high position but has been reduced to poverty and working in Queen Anne’s court as a maid following a string of disasters with her and her family. As the film goes on, Abigail ingratiates herself more with Queen Anne and earning the scorn of Sarah, especially after Abigail discovers that Queen Anne and Sarah are lovers, with this resulting in a battle of wits between Sarah and Abigail. The shifting power dynamics between Sarah and Abigail and how this impacts the shape of England is fascinating to watch and also provides a good insight into the position of favourite in the royal court. This power structure also highlights one of the main strengths of the film, that being its sense of humour. It would have been easy for this struggle to be played completely straight, but Lanthimos plays into the comic absurdity of everything, with the structure being more akin to a teen comedy like Mean Girls rather than a traditional costume drama. This more comedic tone works to make the power struggle more engaging by showing the depraved lengths Sarah and Abigail will go to in order to retain power. This tone also shows the absurdity of the royal court, with scenes involving duck racing and wild parties, along with the depravity of those in all class positions.
The setting of the film also provides the perfect environment for the signature delivery of Yorgos Lanthimos dialogue. Even though Lanthimos, and his regular co-writer Efthymis Filippou didn’t write the script (that role being performed by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara), the style of dialogue in this film fits the lines of Lanthimos’ other films. With the setting of the court of Queen Anne in 1708, there is a natural stiltedness to dialogue due to the formal setting of the film. This formal setting means that Lanthimos’ style of directing actors to deliver their lines actual feels fairly naturalistic, making it probably the best introduction to the style of Lanthimos for most people.
The performances meanwhile are excellent across the board. I haven’t really talked about Queen Anne yet due to her role as a focal point, but the role is one that needed to be performed right in order for the film to work at all. Thankfully, Lanthimos has Olivia Colman in the role. Colman plays Anne as a mix between a figure of a spoilt child and a more tragic figure stricken with grief. Throughout the film we see fits of madness from Queen Anne, such as wanting to race lobsters before eating them, with this being mixed in with tragic scenes of her in mourning over suffering 17 miscarriages and having a rabbit to represent each one, and playing Anne as a grotesque figure suffering from gout and gorging herself on cake before vomiting it up. This balancing act of making Anne a compelling character without descending into being a caricature is a difficult one but Colman nails it, showing why she is one of the best actresses working today. Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill is excellent as well, showing the conniving, manipulative nature of the character, but with a sense of love and respect for Queen Anne throughout all of it. Weisz shows that Sarah is genuinely putting the interests of England and Queen Anne first, even when she is treating Queen Anne horribly and pushing England further into war with France. This is another difficult balancing act to pull off and Weisz does it excellently. Emma Stone is also excellent as Abigail Hill. Aside from having a pretty solid English accent, she does a good job at showing initial naivety at the workings of court, with her learning more and becoming more manipulative, following in the footsteps of Sarah, throughout the film, but in a different way. Where Sarah was brutally honest with Queen Anne, Abigail is the flattering manipulator, saying what Queen Anne wants to hear, but you can feel a darker edge to the character throughout the film, with a more subtle air of menace through her manipulations than the direct threats we hear from Sarah. The chemistry between Colman, Weisz and Stone meanwhile is what allows the power dynamic of the film to work as well as it does, alongside the excellent script, providing a strong core for the film.
The male performers in the film though are the ones allowed to go full cartoon in their performances. Nicholas Hoult as Robert Harley goes full panto villain here, playing a great over the top caricature that is a lot of fun to watch, but still compelling in how he tries to manipulate Abigail and Queen Anne. Joe Alwyn is fun as Samuel Masham, showing how much of a pawn he is in Abigail’s game. It’s also always great to see Mark Gatiss and James Smith in films, with them being both comedic in their over the top actions, but also showing how essential they are to the machinations of Sarah and their willingness to go along with Sarah’s schemes, showing them to be skilled players in recognising who the one in power is.
On a technical level, the film is very impressive. Whilst I don’t know much about fashion and architecture in 1708, the film gives the impression of accuracy through the level of detail in the costume design, the make-up and the production design, making the world feel lived in, even when we don’t really go outside Queen Anne’s court. The costume design also does great work for character development, mainly through the changing costumes for Abigail reflecting her changing stance in court. The cinematography and editing meanwhile are pure Lanthimos, with DP Robbie Ryan and editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis being completely in sync with Lanthimos’ style. This is especially seen through the use of horizontal camera movement and the use of fish eye lenses throughout the film, giving a sense of disorientation to the events of the film.
Overall, this is an excellent film and is up there as one of the best films of Yorgos Lanthimos. Even though this is his most accessible film, it doesn’t lose the sense of madness and awkwardness that define his films, with this being aided by an excellent, and hilarious script, and incredible central performances from Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. Being a Yorgos Lanthimos film, this is not for everyone, but I do recommend you check it out. If nothing else, there has never been a costume drama like it.
My Rating: 5/5