By Mark Saldana
Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)
Money and power rarely offer anyone lasting happiness. This timeless message is the central theme for this new, unorthodox period film by Yorgos Lanthimos. Power is the goal that drives two of the protagonists in the film. It is what pits them against each other and gives them purpose. It is also what makes them despicable human beings. Though the film takes place in the distant past, its themes are still relevant, and the director and his writers have created a remarkable way to present them. With extraordinary filmmaking, outstanding writing and superb performances by its three lead actresses, The Favourite is destined to become one of the top films of the year.
In early 18th century England, the sickly and inept Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) idly reigns while the parties of Parliament fight each other over the war versus France. Manipulated by her assistant Sarah Churchill the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), the Queen supports the continuation of the war, despite the heavy financial toll and loss of life it demands of her subjects. While the politicians continue fighting, another conflict arises within the royal court. When Lady Marlborough’s cousin Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) arrives at the castle, seeking shelter and employment, things at the castle will never be the same. As Abigail catches the attention of the Queen and charms her way up the ranks, a fierce rivalry between her and Sarah ensues.
Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, Yorgos Lanthimos’s film is one of the more enticing, entertaining and uttely hilarious films of the year. In presenting this satirical comedy, Lanthimos, as usual, takes a surreal and unorthodox approach that fully embraces absurd behavior. Still, while the behavior of the characters is often ridiculous, it mostly remains within realms of reality. The characters go to great lengths to either maintain or attain power, regardless if the requirements are undignified or unsavory. In a slightly exaggerated way, Lanthimos and his writers attempt to show the lows to which people will go to accomplish their desires. This gives the film a warped quality that helps to drive its messages home.
In matching the story’s warped sensibilities, Lanthimos and his cinematographer Robbie Ryan give the film a very distinct viewpoint that differs from typical period peaces. The sets and costumes are appropriately lavish and colorful, but Ryan and the director often keep the camera at a low angle and often shoot scenes with a fish eye lens. The low angle shots elevate the characters, making audience members their royal subjects whom they ironically deem beneath them. The fish eye shot enhances just how narrow-minded and warped these characters are. The filmmakers also skillfully use natural light in the scenes, a technique which Stanley Kubrick used in his period film Barry Lyndon. This certainly reinforces my belief that Lanthimos draws much inspiration from the late auteur.
I must also applaud the use of both traditional classical music by William Lyons with the eerie and unnerving music and sounds contributed by Johnnie Burn and Alexis Bennett. The juxtaposition of both these highly contrasting styles definitely adds to heavy ironic tone of the film. It is a choice that separates the typical period film from a Lanthimos version.
As I stated above, this film wouldn’t be as extraordinary if not for the stellar performances by the cast. As the weak, clueless and very spoiled Queen Anne, the lovely Olivia Colman gives a comedic performance that is sure to keep audiences laughing often. She completely embodies the slovenly ignorant and dim witted role, but also gives the character an appropriately sympathetic nature. Rachel Weisz is tough, determined and upfront with her role as Lady Marlborough, the Queen’s personal assistant and confidante who always has a political agenda.
Emma Stone is equally defiant and driven as Abigail, but starts out sympathetically. Her character has fallen on hard times, but once she tastes ambition and finds a way to rise higher, she becomes as loathsome as all of the other subjects in the royal court. The film also can boast fantastic turns by James Smith, Nicholas Hoult, and Joe Alwyn.
I do sincerely believe that fans of Yorgos Lanthimos will certainly enjoy this film, but maybe not as much as his previous ones. This particular film is easily his most accessible one and is sure to reach a broader audience. As for me, I feel it lacks the power and intelligence of his past work, but is nevertheless an extraordinary film. It is definitely his most entertaining movie and perhaps is the best and smartest comedy of the year.