The Favourite is a highly contained story as is Lanthimos’ fashion, with a small cast, and a simplistic plot where people act according to otherworldly rules. Dogtooth, his second feature, is a great analogy for his films as a whole. A father attempts to contain his children within his house for their entire lives, telling them the world outside is dangerous and they’re better off without it. In The Favourite, we are being told a story about a monarchy with almost no glimpse into the country it governs, we hear of war but don’t see it, and watch events unfold in such an uncanny, out of touch fashion that makes reality feel so far away. The Queen’s tragedy is the point from which all else vibrates, and it’s disconnected delivery is where it ends.
The film moves with a similar rhythm as does the rest of Yorgos Lanthimos’ work; dropping us into a black comedic world we will fumble to make sense of, but slowly and surely become familiar with. It is unlike his other English language releases The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Lobster whose explicit surrealist devices are removed. It’s subject matter instead involves grounded, historical events that have surrealism woven into the fabric. Subtle adaptations and distortions of 18th Century England and Queen Anne’s life could well go individually unnoticed, but as they build, we cant help but register a strangeness. His particular breed of forthcoming, dead-pan delivery clashes with and freshens up the period piece aesthetic. The events are captured in an affectingly unsynchronised way. Fish eye lenses literally bend the world. These methods drive a wedge through normalcy and through the rigid and glum; it is a sloppy and radical vision of a purportedly uptight time. This is where much of the humour, oddity and our acclimatisation to Lanthimos’ gravity will occur.
Rich in its telling and textured with great detail, The Favourite is emotionally affecting. But this is by and large contained within the cinematic experience. Like the plot itself, events have no visible or tangible consequence outside of the confines of the story’s universe, and as such trying to search for a sub-text or ethos, I struggle. I’m unsure, other than him having an interest in the story, why he feels the need to tell it, or what if anything he believes it reveals about life, love, monarchy, politics, sexuality, war or bureaucracy that we haven’t heard already. Is the love triangle between Anne (Olivia Colman), Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) necessary to tell the story? Do we learn anything of real human relationships, or is it drama for drama’s sake to pad out the film thematically?
These themes are visible, but are only important insofar as they impact plot. We could come away from the story with the idea that the monarchy have little or no regard for anything other than melodrama and trivial gossip; that the waves within the minds of power are ignorantly spilled across nations. This is certainly not news, nor does the film ask for any judgement from us to this effect.
While the elites are shown to be melodramatic and trivial, they are all still likeable. Such petty, surreal figures are so charming they that they deflect responsibility for their poisonous antics. In fact I find it impossible to come away from any Lanthimos film being able to side with anyone. They are openly flawed, oftentimes excessive and violent, and not one character is guilt free. His characters seem to come from the same mould and shift according to their placement in a story, they are almost interchangeable. This in turn does however pay off especially with regards to the period setting of The Favourite in how refreshing it is to see a story headed by female characters whose actions and personalities are not driven by the fact of their sex. This is again par for the course for Lanthimos. The personality of his films and characters as a whole do not permit for sexualisation. While the men in this film are written for the most part as crude and patriarchal, tossing around the idea of rape as often as they flick their wigs, Lanthimos and his team write the women with just as much crudeness, selfishness and violence. Often such characteristics of female characters are laced with some kind of fragility or soft-spot in cinema, this is not the case here.
It is neither strictly sincere nor comedic, but the tonal seesaw drops heavily on the side of sincerity in its final moments. This is by now quintessential Lanthimos. A slow knife of an ending that appears manipulated but is in fact real time shows the haunted faces of Abigail and Anne paralysed in thought as the former rubs the latter’s gout-ridden legs. With a dissolve, their paralysed faces disappear, overrun by the padding feet and black and white fur coats of Anne’s 17 children.
Its tough to argue with the method, Lanthimos masterfully creates a unique cinematic experience and the performances are excellent – Colman’s Anne is of Shakespearean ilk, glossy eyed, slumped and bent, shuffling her grounds on a limping leg seeking chances to extort a weakening grasp on reality and power. We enjoy the drama as it lasts but I feel fooled by it, succumbed by the stylishness of the trees while ignoring the woods. Lanthimos is a world builder, and tells a good story in his own way and I’ll always be curious about what he will do next; I just hope it’s something with a bit more lasting damage.