Yorgos Lanthimos is an authentic original. The Favourite would seem implausible coming from anyone else. There are so many disparate parts working in perfect harmony here. He has created a historical dark satire for the ages, one where three leading ladies – Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Wiesz – turn in the year’s best performances. Yes, the year’s three best performances may be contained within this single modern masterpiece. There is every sense that the veneer will fall out at any moment, that Lanthimos’s provocateur nature will overcome the nature of the work. The bottom never falls out. The Favourite escalates, and escalates, and then sticks its landing.
The story centers around Queen Anne of England, a skillful Colman acting at her highest caliber. She has a bout of gout and plods around her royal castle, wrapping her legs in meats and making off-the-cuff decisions with drastic ramifications upon everyone in her country. She’s awfully taken with her assistant, Lady Sarah (an exquisite Weisz), her lifelong pal and confidant. Sarah has her own predilections about running the place – as the Duchess of Marlborough – she would often hold audience with advisors and bring information to the Queen that might advance the agenda of her Whig party. In walks Sarah’s disgraced cousin, Abigail (a profoundly funny and conniving Stone), who disrupts the royal order of the arrangement and means to displace Sarah as the Queen’s favorite.
The Favourite’s a torrid, erotic affair. While staying within the parameters of a period drama, Lanthimos has uncovered an essential newness for every aspect of the production. His great assembly works like he is already in the company of the Masters of the craft. The direction is peerless in comedic timing and hot boiled erotic tension. Colman deserves the credit, holding the attentions of Stone and Weisz, setting them up, and allowing them to knock each other down. The actresses perform with expert precision, perfectly attuned to the remarkable script they’ve been given. This is the rare example of everything coming together just so.
There is no lack of credit to go around here. Robbie Ryan has lensed the film with smart inclinations. Rarely has a fisheye lens been exercised so usefully in any period piece. He creates broad corridors that feel like they’re closing in, that invite us into the royalty, and creates a new detached perspective. The film’s wet with dramatic irony. If every shot is given to dramatic irony, it is not the mean spirited kind. The Favourite is provided a leg up on more despairing fare, like The Death of Stalin, by being so resolutely amicable in its framing, a product of thorough finessing.
All three ladies deserve the same damn Oscar. They triangulate so beautifully, burning with desire and resentment. When Stone challenges Weisz for the single relationship that’s defined her life, there is a great interplay of intense, shifting power dynamics. Each actress exudes power, and put together, they’re truly a dream cast, all putting on performances of a lifetime. They are helped by useful side players, with an achingly funny Nicholas Hoult being the best of the bunch.
While Yorgos Lanthimos ensures it is never boring, this may be taken on its merits as a serious period entry. The music of Vivaldi and Bach swell from the authentic old instruments. The costuming is a work of art, a successor of Phantom Thread (2017)’s relentless perfection. It has all the feeling of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), with a truly subversive auteur ensuring that it is also all sufficiently new and transgressive.
What we know about Yorgos Lanthimos is that he has a strange fixation on animalistic symbolism. His Dogtooth (2009) explores human ownership and treatment, what we are like confined, and not freed to our own desires. Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) likewise shows what humans do when trapped and drawn into a corner, like prey. The Lobster (2015), of course, strikes the most startling revelations of all, as people must find mates at accelerated rates or be turned into the animal of their choice. In The Favourite, his themes remain in-tact. It begins with the barking of a dog and cooing of a bird, and so we know how important animals are going to be. Queen Anne herself keeps 17 bunny rabbits, her truest companions, each representing one of her lost children. Abigail exploits her love for animals but is kept on only as a favored pet herself. She may view the bunnies as an easy pathway to the tender Queen, but she exists on their level, as a bedmate.
The great success of The Favourite is that it builds and builds, never caving in under the weight of its many great concepts. This is a film as good as the sum of its parts, all equal and proportionate to the whole. Nobody on the cast ever puts a foot wrong, all three actresses elevating each other in the year’s three best performances. Everything about The Favourite is sure and steady, the culmination of a director and his cast reaching their fullest potential.