Yorgos Lanthimos’s period dramedy ‘The Favourite’ starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone kicks off the 56th annual New York Film Festival.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest epic, The Favourite, is his most accessible film yet that still thrashes in the same absurdist sandbox that stole my heart in the first place. Lanthimos’ body of work plainly addresses an often overembellished or overcomplicated universal truth that when you get right down to it, being alive makes absolutely no sense. His unassuming presentation of the bizarre as if obvious rings so true to the baseline of human experience and The Favourite investigates this truth in the powdered wigs and petticoats of 18th century Great Britain.
In The Favourite, Queen Anne sits atop the throne (played magnificently by Olivia Colman) though her lover Lady Sarah (deftly portrayed by Rachel Weisz) is the one who pulls the strings. This partnership falters when Lady Sarah’s cousin Abigail (a solid performance by Emma Stone) arrives after falling on hard times. Sarah refuses Abigail’s request for her ladyship to be reinstated and banishes her to the maids quarters. But Abigail is much too smart for that stead. She begins to leave breadcrumbs for Queen Anne to nibble on and finds her way into the Queen’s favor by mentioning how she concocted the salve for her recently injured leg. The game is on after Abigail, when hiding away in the library late one night, catches Anne and Sarah share a kiss and retire to the bedroom. This delicate gay love triangle quickly spirals out of control into a full-blown power struggle and eventually and heartbreakingly leads to the banishment of Lady Sarah and the sexual victory of Abigail.
The Favourite is queer content that I have nothing but time for. Lanthimos neither dwells on or fetishizes their sexuality nor does he deem it their crowning personality trait. They are just three complex, flawed, and powerful women crafting their futures, which is refreshingly honest to see in a queer story, considering the vast majority of queer films focus on white cisgendered gay men or boys enduring some sort of discrimination.
Olivia Colman as Queen Anne blew me away. Give her the Oscar. Her Queen Anne is a spoiled, gluttonous, naive, tragic woman forever trapped in doubt if anyone even likes her. She is stunted by the deaths of seventeen children and desperately fills the void with seventeen rabbits, piles of cake, and Sarah’s guiding grip. The moment that broke me was watching her watch Sarah dance with a member of the court. The camera stays on her face for a while as we see her breathe in her love and admiration for Sarah and watch it subtly transform into sadness, fear, jealousy, and finally anger as she orders the dancing to dance and demands Sarah take her back to her room.
Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is masterful. His use of wide angle and fisheye shots illuminate the excess and claustrophobia of the massive palace. Beautiful tracking shots and moments of one point perspective create an easy presence when capturing the women, giving them the space to let their fate play out. There’s a strikingly beautiful Russian doll effect to the film: a power struggle between three women who perpetually wander a castle seven sizes too big will ripple outwards through the entire country, affecting millions of people of all classes.
I suspect the ending of this film will be divisive. Some may say the film petered out or lost its steam, but I understand the vacancy in Anne’s and Abigail’s expressions to be the perfect ending. Lanthimos always poses questions and leaves them up to the audience to answer, so why should we expect him to wrap up this story with a bow for us? We’ve watched these women fight for love and for survival through the entire film. Now both Queen Anne and Abigail got what they wanted. Anne has someone who she believes loves her and wants nothing back, and Abigail has her ladyship, a substantial dowry, and the Queen’s eye and ear. But what do you do when you get everything you wanted and you’re still not satisfied? What do you do when it isn’t enough? What do you do now that you feel the weight of all you’ve been fighting for instead of the weightlessness you’d expected? I believe that’s the uniquely human predicament that Yorgos Lanthimos wants us to consider.