Well everyone, it’s that time of year again: the Oscar noms are out and everyone’s rushing to their local DVD retailers and cinema to make their way through the list of Best Picture applicants. Myself included. Today, it was Yorgos Lanthimos’ disturbing, dark, period dramedy, The Favourite.
The film tells the story of the relationship between an ailing Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) and her favourite at court: Lady Sarah, Duchess of Malborough (Rachel Weisz) who governs the Kingdom and the war with France in her stead. Theirs is a happy although manipulative relationship, which then gets thrown into turmoil with the appearance of Sarah’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a noble-born woman who has fallen far and seeks employment from her cousin. Becoming Sarah’s maid, Abigail soon sets her sights on replacing Sarah as the Queen’s new favourite.
If you have had any exposure to Lanthimos’ films before, than you know exactly what you’re in for with The Favourite, but if you haven’t sampled the strange tastes and delights of this director, here’s a few words to colour the board: disturbing, wicked, off-centre, and weird. The Favourite is like a period version of All About Eve with elements of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet thrown into the mix for good measure. Lanthimos takes a celebrated and elevated style of cinema -i.e. the period drama- and tarnishes its shine -a la Peter Greenaway and Stanley Kubrick- by setting a story about the lesser desirable traits of humanity against the extravagant backdrop.
Visually, this film’s a feast! The art direction, set design, costumes, and production are immaculate and simply gorgeous, contrasting incredibly well with the central story of deception, manipulation, and moral and literal degradation. Eerily, Lanthimos’ use of convex frames and the dividing of the film into chapters – perhaps a nod to Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople– brings a level of modernism to the period setting, making it stand far away from other films with crowns, pomp, furs, and pearls.
The central cast is simply wonderful and while its obviously not a very kind depiction of women –all the women, even the maids, taunt, tease, backstab, and lie, while the men can only think on their careers and cocks- it’s an interesting experiment in casting. Perhaps this was just me, but I automatically found myself primed to view Sarah as the villain and Abigail as the victim when in fact it’s the other way around. Disregarding the fact that the film does condition you to root for Abigail from the beginning because she’s wide-eyed, moral, and sweet, I chalked my feelings up to the most recent films I’d seen with each actress: my most recent memories of Rachel Weisz have been as a jealous, incestuous sister in Crimson Peak and the wicked witch in Oz the Great and Powerful, while Emma Stone I know primarily as charming teenager in Easy A and a fool who dreams in La La Land. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I definitely found the central cast fascinating.
Not to mention that their performances were all remarkable. Olivia Coleman plays the tortured, alienated, depressed monarch incredibly well; all you want to do is give her a hug, but when she goes into her sporadic fits of rage and panic she is a force to be reckoned with. Rachel Weisz is cold and calculating, yet there is the thin, but distinct underlying trace of love and compassion for her Queen. Emma Stone is classically sweet and wide-eyed at the beginning with her transformation into conniving backstabber being subtle, but powerful. All three are very compelling when put together in a room.
The Favourite is definitely the Oscars’ token quirky applicant for Best Picture this year -like Birdman or The Grand Budapest Hotel– and while it’s not a film that is to everyone’s taste, it’s undoubtedly unique in its contrasting style and content, lavish outfit, and corrupted characters.