by Ana-Marija Bilandzija
There's a little blood and a lot of bitch fight in Yorgos Lanthimos’ period drama The Favourite. It's his least cryptic film yet, which earned him ten Academy Award nominations (the Oscars are tonight), and still stands out between easily-consumable movies like A Star is Born or Bohemian Rhapsody. Here's why you should watch it.
It's the early 18th century, England is at war with France. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) lacks a clear strategy, but she does have a childhood friend who basically runs the business for her: Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), always in control and so irreplaceable that she can do whatever she pleases. At least until the arrival of Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). A cousin of Sarah's who has fallen into poverty for family reasons, Abigail quickly succeeds in charming Sarah and in particular Anne, who soon grows extremely attached to Abigail, not only for cuddling her rabbits and telling her stories, but also as her object of desire. And here it starts getting messy – and amazingly interesting.
Women, as they are portrayed in Lanthimos' bizarre comedy, enact power very differently than men: soft in a way, with more empathy and less machismo, but also full of intrigue. Queen Anne being the weakest, but de facto most powerful woman of England, suffers gouty arthritis and terrible mood swings, if not a depression/borderline disorder. She goes from sweet and jiggling dancer to a pile of tears in just minutes, always relying on Sarah and Abigail for comfort, and obviously hating herself for it. She can't stand the choir's singing on a sunny day, screaming at them across the yard. She faints during a strategy announcement in front of her ministers and entourage. Anne is a mess. Olivia Colman offers a brilliant version of this mess. Her weepy voice, poor posture, the neediness oozing out of each of her pores. In an interview with German news magazine Der Spiegel, Colman said it “gives her great pleasure to bathe in feelings, if a role offers to do so.” It’s much harder for her, she continues, “to hide feelings.” She instantly fell in love with Yorgos Lanthimos' script: “It’s dirty, garish, a disrespectful approach. (...) I’d be crazy, had I rejected playing the part.” She put on some weight in order to resemble the Queen. It was worth it.
Queen Anne is hardly bearable at times, and still, both Sarah and Abigail fall for her. Or just for the power she holds? There's a lot of myth surrounding Queen Anne's love life, like having affairs with several women, as portrayed in this dreamy ménage-à-trois. What's factual, on the other hand, is her loss of 17 children. Lanthimos, who loves including animal references in his movies, placed 17 rabbits in golden cages right next to the Queen's four-poster-bed symbolizing each one of her tragic losses. In The Lobster (2015), his dark vision of love in times of expected togetherness, singles must choose which animal they will transform into if they don't find a mate in two weeks’ time. Dogtooth (2009) is a story of the horrors of family. The parents isolate their two teenage daughters from the outside world, teaching them cats are deadly creatures and that anything outside their yard is dangerous, driving emotional abuse to the extreme.
Social aberrations, mindless rituals and the loss of humanity run through all of Lanthimos' movies. He couldn't have chosen a better backdrop for this than the 18th-century-monarchy, it appears. Yet his first costume drama lacks some of the innocent pondering he dared to do in Alps or The Lobster. It's still dark, but the acting is more accessible, less Brecht and more Lynch.
Even though it's all about female power, making The Favourite was not per se a feminist act, the Greek director said in an interview with The Guardian: “I can’t pretend that I thought we need more women represented in a certain way, it was just an instinctive thing. I was interested in that which I hadn’t seen very often.”
The Favourite thrives off its strong female cast and witty dialogue. All characters experience a development, the only constant being Anne's unstableness. Thus the viewer's sympathies shift as the story moves on. Abigail doesn't turn out to be the innocent, well-educated and well-mannered girl in a maid's dress we meet in the beginning. Lady Sarah surprises by exhibiting humanly traits and sisterly love; her first impression as a cold and dominant quasi-regent in a striking black-and-white-gown thoroughly obscures this side of her.
It's not without reason this gem is nominated for Best Cinematography, Costume Design and Set Design, just to name three of the ten categories. Sandy Powell’s costumes hilariously mock court society:en wear gigantic wigs and pink rouge, the Queen and Lady Sarah discuss whether one could fix Anne's "badger" make up. She ends up crying – again. The choice of music deserves to be mentioned, too. The Classical music Lanthimos chose unfolds a horror no drones could ever create. Luc Ferrari’s Didascalies, for example, is a haunting heartbeat through the big halls of a lonely Queen – only one of the reasons why The Favourite should be watched in the theater. The other reason is Robbie Ryan's cinematography. It gives us plenty opportunity to dive into the scenery – his use of natural light, extreme-close-ups and moving camera – just to throw us back into the seat as spectators by using fisheye lenses, making it obvious that we're observing these bizarre happenings as flies on the wall. Or rabbits in a cage.
The Favorite has been nominated in ten categories at the Academy Awards 2019:
Best Original Screenplay
Best Achievement in Production Design
Best Achievement in Costume Design
Best Motion Picture of the Year
Best Achievement in Directing
Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Best Achievement in Cinematography
Best Achievement in Film Editing