If you’re among those who view the oeuvre of Yorgos Lanthimos as a funhouse reflection of Stanley Kubrick, then “The Favourite” is Lanthimos’ “Barry Lyndon.”
Grade: A –
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Olivia Colman, Nicholas Hoult and Joe Alwyn
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hr.
If you’re among those who view the oeuvre of Yorgos Lanthimos as a funhouse reflection of Stanley Kubrick, then “The Favourite” is Lanthimos’ “Barry Lyndon.” Both films tell the tales of 18thcentury rubes who worm and woo their way into the English gentry, bedding influential women and dispatched rivals along the way. But Lanthimos imprints his own distinctive flair. While “The Favourite” makes liberal use of wide-angle long shots, a Kubrick staple, Lanthimos filters many of them through a fisheye lens distortion. Whereas Kubrick was a fan of the tracking shot, Lanthimos uses copious whip pans.
However, Lanthimos ascribes other visual and thematic influences to his wicked portrait of palace intrigue, including Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers,” Peter Greenaway’s “The Draughman’s Contract,” and Milos Forman’s “Amadeus.” The common denominator is that all these films capture the ugly side of courtly manners, wallowing in the excesses of aristocratic hedonism, a milieu full of bacchanalia and backstabbing. “The Favourite” relishes in the absurdity of it all, fashioning an iconoclastic rejoinder to power and politics that we still need today.
The most devious trick pulled by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s sharp-edged script is basing this farce on a true story. It’s essentially a three-woman play, set during the reign of mad Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Anne’s lifelong friend, adviser, and furtive lover is Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough, who effectively runs England via intimate whispers in the queen’s ear and the axe Sarah wields at court and Parliament. Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), Sarah’s younger cousin, unceremoniously arrives to palace literally covered in mud, the disgraced daughter of a fallen nobleman who lost his station to bad speculations. Abigail, once forced to service a fat German to pay for daddy’s debts, comes to court begging for a job. Sarah accepts her into the household, more out of embarrassment than pity.
As Sarah’s arrogance and enemies grow, Abigail seizes an opportunity to further her status. Abigail’s flirtations earn the attention Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), an influential member of Parliament, and the affections of Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), a baron and courtier. As Abigail sweetalks her way into Anne’s bedchamber, it comes at the expense of Sarah, who gradually sees her influence diminish. Both women finds themselves on a ruthless collision course, to the delight of Anne, whose amusement often devolves into bemusement due to her many illnesses and the emotional scars of personal tragedies, including over a dozen miscarriages and premature deaths. Abigail ultimately finds herself coming full circle, even in victory, still servicing the whims of a corpulent master.
A large part of the film’s guilty pleasure is that Lanthimos takes moments that are already risible and tacks on surreal touches. Indulgent palace parties also include duck racing. A nighttime walk ends with Robert summarily shoving Abigail into a ditch when she gets a little too mouthy. When Sarah is severely injured in the countryside, the peasant couple who nurses her back to health also runs a brothel and nearly conscripts Sarah into service.
Believe or not, “The Favourite” is Lanthimos’ most accessible film, following the inscrutable “The Lobster” and the pitch-dark “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” That doesn’t mean it’s mundane or mainstream, however. Behind their pre-Georgian costumes, all three lead performances are awards-worthy, with Colman leading the way with the showier role. Their gender-switching triumvirate is a misanthropic joy ride that, if nothing else, shows that men don’t have a monopoly on the currency of sex and power.