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The Favourite: Lanthimos Film Review

Olivia Colman is Queen Anne in Yorgos Lanthimos’ first period drama The Favourite, which might be the director’s best film to date.

Set in early 18th century England, Yorgos Lanthimos’ first costume drama, The Favourite, revolves around a controversial historical figure and takes place entirely at her court. And there couldn’t have been a more interesting royal to exhamine than Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, of The Crown), who went down in history for so much more than being Great Britain’s last monarch of the Stuart House. The Queen’s strong character and refusal to be manipulated was what allowed her to preserve her independence in a crucial period for England’s history, and Lanthimos shows us just how hard it must have been for her to do so. 

But the members of the cabinet are not the only characters who try to manipulate the queen in The Favourite. As Queen Anne struggles with her ill health, it is her friend and lover Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz, of The Lobster), who keeps her temper tantrums at bay. Lady Churchill’s attempts to take control over both Queen Anne and the country itself are often successful, but the balance is broken when a new servant, Abigail Masham (Emma Stone, of La La Land) arrives. The maid’s social status, however, is only a consequence of her family’s bankruptcy. Abigail is not only well-acquainted with the royal household, as she used to live in the palace: she is, in fact, Sarah Churchill’s cousin by birth. 

What starts as a friendship between Sarah and Abigail turns into a competition as Lady Churchill becomes aware of the maid’s attempt to overthrow her in the Queen’s good graces. As Sarah deals with the Prime Minister (James Smith, of In The Loop) and the leader of the opposition Robert Harley (an excellent Nicholas Hoult, of The X-Men franchise) as they fight over England’s role in the war with France, Abigail gets closer to the queen hoping to be part of the aristocracy again. But all the women in this film – Sarah, Abigail and, most of all, Queen Anne – are way more clever than other people give them credit for. As politics merge with personal quarrels, the real characters emerge and the most manipulative, cruel, desperate, and ultimately human sides of their personalities come to light. 

During the press conference in Venice, Lanthimos talked about wanting to avoid the way women are often portrayed in cinema, for which he blames “the prevalent male gaze”, which leads directors to show us, most of the time, “housewives, girlfriends or objects of desire” instead of women. In The Favourite, the filmmaker chooses to portray his leading ladies as “three human beings, as complex, complicated, wonderful and horrific as they are, like every other human being,” and he absolutely succeeds. Not only that, but his choice pays off, as the three protagonists of his costume drama are its strongest assets, in a film that’s quite simply unlike anything you’ve seen before. 

Emma Stone points a rifle at the sky as Abigail Masham in The Favourite
Emma Stone as Abigail Masham (Fox Searchlight/ Film4/Waypoint Entertainment) 

Anne, Abigail and Sarah are equally important, and attention is given to each storyline. No matter how different their social status and personalities may be, they never fail to surprise us and, most of all, they never become stereotypes. There’s nothing boring or predictable about Sarah and Abigail’s fight for power: their common objective and the similarities in their behaviour allow us to delve deeper into their desires. As we become aware of the lengths they are willing to go to in order to get what they want, we witness the darkest and scariest – but also most real – parts of human behaviour. 

Lady Churchill and Abigail are both clever, cold-blooded and manipulative, and our sympathies keep shifting as we see them in action. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are given the chance to show off their acting skills, and they both absolutely excel at portraying two extremely unlikeable, powerful characters who never become villains in our eyes, despite the despicable things they do. As we first notice Sarah’s abuse of power on Abigail, we empathise with the innocent maid; when the maid transforms into an equally cunning adversary who enjoys breaking the rules and shows no regret whatsoever for the relationships she ruins, we appreciate Lady Churchill’s fearfulness and her detached, “politician-like”way of dealing with her enemies. 

But Yorgos Lanthimos’s women have more in common than their lust for power. Sarah, Abigail and, above all, Queen Anne are not only cunning and influential: they are also extremely lonely

Having endured the loss of eighteen children, Queen Anne is the embodiment of loneliness. She might be temperamental and suffer from more than one illness, but she is also a survivor. Olivia Colman’s incredible portrayal of a queen haunted by her demons and in desperate need of human connection earned her the Coppa Volpi Award for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival, and she fully deserved it. Her Queen Anne is spoiled, self-centered, often unpredictable and definitely flawed, and yet she is the most sympathetic character in the film. As we become aware of everything she had to go through in her life, we realise she is fully aware of what’s happening around her, and we understand just how profoundly sad and lonely she is. She shocks us with her foul language and sexual behaviour, but she also earns our respect for the choices she makes.

Lanthimos is well-known for subverting conventions, and The Favourite does just that. It is an analysis of power that focuses on women portrayed as “human beings” and approaches modern politics by looking at 18th Century royals. It’s a story about love and relationships, but it’s also a universal analysis of human behaviour. Most of all, this British costume drama/satirical comedy is psychological and socio-political, it challenges stereotypes, and it’s probably his best film to date.

Visually, the film is stunning. Hues of green and yellow take over the screen, becoming more intense the more rotten Queen Anne’s court is revealed to be. It’s a dreamlike atmosphere, but also a nightmarish one. The low-angle, distorted shots alienate the viewer even more, making you feel claustrophobic in a film that’s set entirely within the castle walls. This is further amplified by the characters’s exaggerated clothes and makeup, which make the film, at the same time, more disorienting and yet more timely and relatable.

Yorgos Lanthimos defies expectations and gives us a slow-burning analysis of politics and power dynamics that might be set in the 18th Century but couldn’t be more relevant to our day and age. The Favourite is a masterclass in storytelling, elevated by superb acting from its three leads.

The Favourite is now available to watch on digital and on demand.

The Favourite (Fox Searchlight)
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