The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, is one of the best films to come out of 2018. It is a dark comedy armed with sharp wit and spectacular writing, carried by its three leads. Despite its comedic nature, however, it does not sacrifice its depth. It is dark and even deeply saddening at times, yet each moment carries with it a signature acerbic tone. It is truly a testament to how period dramas can be done well and never falters or slows for the sake of history. Lanthimos knows his audience and speaks directly to it, humanizing these historical figures in an intimate, albeit not always flattering, fashion. It is equally refreshing and accessible and is arguably Lanthimos’ best work.
Based on a true story, the film takes some liberties in his story telling to create a thrilling and complexly woven drama. Olivia Colman stars as Queen Anne, who spends much of her time wandering the halls of her palace. She suffers from gout and devotes herself to wallowing in her misery, while Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), her close confidant and lover, makes decisions in her stead. War is raging on, and Lady Marlborough fights to have her way with Parliament. Meanwhile, Lady Marlborough’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives to try to regain her former status as a Lady, which she lost in disgrace as a result of her father’s actions. She begins working at the palace as a maid, but slowly works her way up the ladder, and places herself in a position to gain favor with Queen Anne. As their relationship develops and turns intimate, Lady Marlborough seeks payback out of jealousy. Following this, the two fight bitterly to win the love and power garnered from their respective relationships with the queen.
One of the greatest aspects of The Favourite is how difficult it truly is to pick a favorite. While the two vie for attention, it is easy to feel sympathetic for both women as they target and threaten each other. The back and forth between the two is incredibly effective in drawing in and compelling the audience. They are equally cunning and conniving; the vigor with which Stone and Weisz embody their characters can easily sway your sympathy one way or the other.
These are not, however, people without flaws. The Favourite certainly does not shy away from the unflattering, yet spins it in a delightful and wickedly charming fashion. Because of the brutal honesty of this approach, much of the responsibility is put into the hands of the actors. Had any other actors portrayed the three main women, it could very easily have turned the audience against them. However, and this is especially true in the case of Colman, these roles are not taken up carelessly. We are drawn into their deeply twisted world, where every laugh and punchline comes with the ache of knowing the burdens these characters carry.
What makes The Favourite compelling is not that its characters are flawless heroes or that every element falls into place and every loose end is tied up — that is not the story being told. It is compelling because it is human.
It is bitterly intimate, sometimes bordering on disturbing, yet it is comedic at all the right moments. The grey morality of every character, the vivacity with which they desire to exist and to be heard, and the desperation to which they must turn is what compels.
The style itself of the film is simultaneously gratuitous and wanting. The characters dress in garish outfits, with dramatic makeup and wigs, all the while with an 18th century palace as their backdrop. The Queen collects rabbits as her pets, her court races ducks, and there is even a rather jarring scene in which a naked man is pelted with food as a form of entertainment. It is loud, it is outrageous, and it beckons you to take a closer look. For every moment of frivolous and outlandish, however, there is a moment where the illusion comes crashing down. All the absurdity comes hand in hand with moments that are almost bleak in their sadness. This is paired with a score that is almost haunting in its minimalism, sometimes reduced to only a tonal sound rather than instrumental music. At times it is almost grating, and certainly unsettling. This juxtaposition of maximalism and minimalism works in its favor—it never feels like too much. It can certainly sometimes feel wanting, or open-ended at times, expecting the audience to make connections or interpretations of their own. However, Lanthimos knows when to be over the top and when to reel it in.
Although The Favourite certainly fits into the framework of Lanthimos’ other films, it also stands out. It carries the same balance of comedy with darkness, yet feels more accessible than his previous works. Its writing and performances are far and away its strongest points. Every character compels, and their greed, which can often turn the audience against a character, is humanized and makes you empathize with their struggles. What could easily have become a very sad film, however, is made wickedly funny, layering its moral ambiguity and darkness beneath its quick dialogue and smart comedy. Without a doubt, it is one of the stand out pieces of 2018; it makes a statement and balances its style with its substance in a unique fashion. It is a film that doesn’t leave your mind after you see it and leaves you thinking over every choice and every performance. As awards season unfolds, we should expect to see several nods to The Favourite and its leads, as well as its screenplay—perhaps even a Best Picture nomination.