If with The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos had started to attract an audience beyond his home-country, with The Favourite (2018), he completely and unequivocally erupts on the international film scene. Presented at the 75th Venice Film Festival, the project differs from Lanthimos’ previous films, where he also acted as screenwriter; instead The Favourite is adapted from a brilliant script attentively curated for years by author Deborah Davis. Davis started writing in 1998, after stumbling upon sources regarding the complicated relationship between Queen Anne (portrayed by Olivia Colman) and her two favorite ladies: Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and her fallen cousin, Abigail Masham (Emma Stone). The Favourite starts from Abigail’s arrival at court, and follows her social rise as she and Sarah battle with words, sex, political moves and fake gun shots to win the Queen’s favour. Meanwhile, England is at war with France, and Sarah does not only have to defend herself against Abigail, but also push her own political agenda of war against Robert Harley’s (Nicholas Hoult) desire for peace.
Reflecting the intricacies typical of a court, The Favourite is a complicated and genre-bending mixture of political drama, witty comedy and not necessarily a love drama, but a pot of sexual tension and desire. Desire, in fact, dominates the entire film and, refreshingly, it is women’s desires driving the plot; focused on the Queen’s need for appreciation and obedience, Sarah’s ambition for control and love for her country, and Abigail’s want for safety and a comfortable existence.
Unashamedly trying to satisfy their own personal and egotistical needs, the three protagonists of The Favourite are refreshingly complex in their femininity: mean, petty, and yet still powerful and dignified. As Abigail states when talking to Harley, “I am always just on my side, and if this happens to be favourable for you, that is just coincidental”. Focused on themselves, the three women completely ignore and disregard the men's desires: one particularly hilarious scene depicts Abigail plotting her next move against Sarah while her newly-wed husband Masham (Joe Alwyn) lays next to her in bed. “I am hard as a rock, and this is our wedding night”, he says, annoyed at being ignored by Abigail. While Abigail eventually resolves to satisfy her husband, the scene leaves no doubt in showcasing her priorities, which does not include satisfying male desire. Instead, male characters are mostly kept around for comedic relief, always ridiculously drunk and comical. Through this, The Favourite creates a revision of historical period dramas, which are more commonly led by men and women are relegated to supporting roles.
The refreshingly new plot of the film is complimented by superb acting. Colman, who recently won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in comedy and is an Academy Award nominee for this role, gives an incredibly emotional and rounded performance. She provides the character of Queen Anne with the widest possible range of emotions and reactions. By contrast, Stone’s and Weisz’s performances are decisively more contained in the calculated moves of their characters. Stone in particular, who is not an obvious choice for a Lanthimos’ film (the director having worked with both Colman and Weisz previously), proves herself as a worthy casting, in what may be her first role as a character who is neither likeable nor relatable. Stone's recognisable looks help her in bringing Abigail from the role of an innocent maid in the opening of the film to a cunning and power-hungry woman by the end.
The social rise of these characters is enforced by their increasingly luxurious outfits and hairstyles, which are currently on exhibition at Kensington Palace until 8th February. Academy Award winner Sandy Powell’s costumes are monochrome, focused on blacks, greys, whites and creams and yet, produce an aura of splendour and luxury. These designs become even more fascinating in person, upon visiting the exhibition, where it was revealed that the costumes were (in a delightfully modern twist) made of denim.
Styling, script, music and plot collaborate in this film to create one of the most compelling productions of 2019. There is no doubt that it is a strong Academy Award nominee. Lanthimos seems to have found a new rhythm in this perfect mixing of genres, benefitting from Davis’ script, which according to The Guardian 'may have corrected Lanthimos’s tendency towards arthouse torpor'. Similar to The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer in its absurdist cinematography style, Lanthimos finds what was missing in his previous works: a striking balance between dark comedy, socio-political critique and romantic drama. Hardly definable, The Favourite not only signifies the turning of a new leaf for Lanthimos, but also inserts itself into the current reinvention of cinematic genres. Standing next to Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018) and Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You (2018) in terms of release dates, it is clear that the new film trend is the continuous reinvention and reinterpretation of film genres, pushing for new forms of art and expression. This creates a stark contrast to typical biopics like Green Book (2018) and Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). It will be exciting to see what this new reinvention will mean for cinema in 2019 and the near future. One thing is sure: if Lanthimos continues on this line, he will be one of the leading directors in a new line of artistic expression.
Edited by Eloïse Wright, Head Film Editor
Visit The Favourite Costume Display at Kensington Palace, until February 8th 2019: https://www.hrp.org.uk/kensington-palace/explore/the-favourite-costume-display/#gs.6fkYgfjS