As an auteur director, it can be challenging to get yourself on the mainstream scene without sacrificing some of your creative freedom to the Hollywood machine. While his recent pictures are by no means blockbusters, the Greek film director Yorgos Lanthimos has found himself a highly appealing actors’ director, aligning with such frequent collaborators as Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz. And all he really had to do to get such attention stateside was make English language films. That’s it. Granted, one could argue you shouldn’t have to make a transition such as that, but in looking at his filmography, he hasn’t had to make many other compromises, at least ostensibly speaking. A lot of people in the film community became familiar with him a couple years ago with a little absurdist comedy called The Lobster. While it certainly wasn’t for everyone – I’m talking to you, Mom – for those who did enjoy it, it turned out to be one of the most hysterical films of the year, and even managed to earn him a Oscar nomination for screenwriting in the bargain. I’ll admit, I missed his next project, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but critically, it doesn’t appear he missed a beat. Now he’s back in the awards race with the biographical offering The Favourite, one he may not have written, but one that is rife with his unique style. In fact, I’d wager that it’s even better than The Lobster – one of my favorites of that year – due in large part to its ability to craft such dynamic characters without making us choose whether to love or hate them. Merely understanding them is tantamount here, as the likes of Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz do phenomenal work leading the charge. While I may have been expecting a more comedic tone in keeping with The Lobster, what I got was surprising but oh so satisfying.
Set in the early 18th Century, England is at war with France. However Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is apathetic to the cause, her health failing her. She is kept in check regardless by her closest friend and advisor Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), who may be rigid but is precisely what the Queen needs to get the job done. Their dynamic is complicated when Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives at the palace doorstep looking for work, in dire financial straits. Sarah gets her a position as a scullion, but Abigail is through inhabiting a lower station in life. She seizes the opportunity to gain the Queen’s favor, the two ultimately fostering a friendship of their own. Whereas Sarah remains strict and honest with the Queen, Abigail is flattering and fun. This leads to much competition between the two cousins, much to the pleasure of the Queen, who revels in being the object of desire for the first time in a long time. However, as the tensions with the war effort ramps up, something will have to give in this whole ménage á trois for power, whether it’s for the good of the nation or not.
That synopsis makes it sound akin to Game of Thrones levels of deception, which isn’t inaccurate, but the motivations behind the deception goes so much deeper than mere power. The movie is more interested in why these characters think they want power, and whether that’s the end-all-be-all, or if it’s something far more intimate like love. That may come across as hokey, but believe me, The Favourite conveys these themes in stride, not so subtle that it loses audience interest but not so on-the-nose that it doesn’t allow for interpretation. Kudos to screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara for being able to craft such a fascinating biographical dramedy that caters to modern moviegoing sensibilities but not at the expense of the historical angle in bringing these key figures to such dynamic life, be it entirely accurate or not. They should be right up there with all the contenders for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar, but seeing as that’s always such a stacked category, it’s anybody’s guess as to whether or not they’ll take home the prize.
At the end of the day though this is an actors movie. Director aside, no one would be seeing this if it weren’t for the likes of Colman, Stone and Weisz, and boy are they at top-notch form here. And while Stone and Weisz are the more proven talents, both being Academy Award winners, it’s Colman who steals the show here as the impetuous and bratty Queen Anne. There are plenty of laughs to be had, with a lot of them coming courtesy of Colman’s mannerisms and quirks throughout. That said, there is a deep, layered performance going on there, one whose potent head rears itself up in the film’s closing scenes and stays with you long after you’ve left the theater. All three of them are going to pick up Oscar noms next week, though Stone and Weisz stand little to no chance of winning Best Supporting Actress against the likes of Regina King for If Beale Street Could Talk. Colman has a better shot in the Best Actress category, but I don’t think she’ll upset both Glenn Close for The Wife and Lady Gaga for A Star is Born.
There’s a lot of spectacle at the cineplexes right now, and while I’ll be spending January playing catchup for the holiday blockbusters I missed, I really recommend checking out The Favourite before awards season is over. Even if you’re one of those people who think all these period drama movies that get all the awards are the pretentious picks, this is the exception. The Favourite may not be my absolute favorite film of the 2018, but seventh favorite ain’t half bad either.
Final Score: 10/10