There isn’t anything quite like watching a film by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. He’s only made a handful of films in his fairly young career (Dogtooth, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer among them) but if you haven’t seen any of his work, this year’s The Favourite might be the perfect entry point.
The Favourite shows off Lanthimos’ signature style and dark creativity without plunging into too much psychological torture (see Killing of a Sacred Deer). But way more striking to me personally is that this is the first time such a magnificent group of women have carried one of his stories - or honestly, a story quite like this from any director.
Queen Anne of Great Britain (the outstanding Olivia Colman, Murder on the Orient Express) is trying to maintain her dignity as ruler and lawgiver as her health slowly deteriorates. But it’s really her lady in waiting - Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz, My Cousin Rachel) - who calls the shots at court. Anne and Sarah have been BFF’s for years, but their intimacy is tested when Sarah’s destitute cousin Abigail (Emma Stone, La La Land) shows up to the castle, pleading for employment.
As Abigail’s quick wit and sweet temper begin to catapult her through the ranks at court, Sarah is suddenly unsure whether she remains the Queen’s favorite - and how a shakeup might change the delicate balance of the house of cards she has built with herself at the center.
Unlike so many period pieces, the power players in this drama are all women. They are not relegated to serve as The Mother, The Love Interest, or The Ingenue. Britain’s army is led by a Queen, the Queen is advised by a Lady’s Maid, and the Lady’s Maid is rivalled by an upstart kitchen maid. Nothing is lacking in the scope of epic dramas. Here, there is blood, guns, sex, vomit, intrigue, plots, and revenge. The men are bedecked in makeup and wigs, and the women run the war. And nearly every scene passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.
Fascinatingly, the story is loosely based on a real-life Queen who ruled England, Scotland, and Ireland in the early 18th century. But her reign was just a springboard for Lanthimos and his delightful muses - aided by fabulous supporting performances from Mark Gatiss (Sherlock), Joe Alwyn (Boy Erased), and Nicholas Hoult (Mad Max: Fury Road).
Keep a sharp eye out for unique, modern touches that make this flick so memorable, like how costume designer Sandy Powell (Cinderella, Carol) created period-appropriate shapes for all the costumes, but built them using modern fabrics. Or how Lanthimos loves wide, almost “fishbowl”-like shots, which highlight the bigness, loneliness, and otherworldliness of court. Perhaps my favorite of these touches is how the music is sometimes eerie and atmospheric, and other times grandiose and historical, and occasionally accompanied by farcical dancing, like some kind of hilariously bizarre dream.
I think a really sad and beautiful aspect of the film is Queen Anne’s tragedy and instability. As a performer and director myself, I was totally in awe of the way she took on not only the physical challenges of the role, but the emotional and mental ones as well. But as Colman and Lanthimos explained to a press conference at the 2018 New York Film Festival, the “emotional center” for each person watching will likely be quite different. There are so many striking moments and themes that everyone will react to in their own way, and your own experiences will shape what strikes you the most.
For movie geeks, Lanthimos’ reputation precedes him; his keen perception of human darkness has already made him legendary - or infamous, depending on who you ask. This latest effort from him is hands down the most fun, the most delightful, and definitely the most accessible.
And you know? In a world full of niche directors who cast the same actors and seem to tell the same stories over and over again, it’s pretty exciting to find one so willing to defy genre stereotypes and shine such a bright spotlight on a cast and crew of brilliant and creative women. Maybe we don’t have to cancel men after all!