People spend their New Year’s Day doing all sorts of things. Some are hungover and some are getting started with their resolutions. Some are just keeping the party going. I however, seem to get to spend the beginning of my year watching the latest film by Greek director, Yorgos Lanthimos. I started 2016 watching The Lobster at the Prince Charles Cinema, began 2018 watching The Killing of a Sacred Dear at a small cinema in Amsterdam, and now, I kicked off 2019 with watching his latest film The Favourite staring Olivia Coleman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. At this point, I’m starting to get a bit offended that I’ve given all this time to the guy, and he’s yet to buy me a drink, or even give a quick word of thanks. That’s directors for you.
Anyway, The Favourite takes place in 1708 at the court of ‘Queen Anne’ (Olivia Coleman). The monarch in question, due to a physical illness and an emotional trauma (particularly through having lost 17 children) takes very little interest in the affairs of state, instead relying on the advice and instruction from her friend ‘Sarah Churchill’ (Rachel Weisz), who uses her position to gain political and social power from the Queen. However, the situation is changed through the arrival of Churchill’s cousin ‘Abigail Hill’ (Emma Stone), who comes seeking employment at the castle and soon begins working her way into the Queen’s favour, much to the dismay of Churchill. What follows is a series of moves and counter moves by all parties who all seek power, favour and all with very different means of securing it.
Having a film filled with dislikeable characters is a difficult gambit to pull off
What’s interesting about this movie is how quickly you realise how dislikeable most of the characters are. There’s no one who you want to particularly support or root for as each one is mostly despicable and conniving, with the exception of Anne who predominantly elicits sympathy and pity. The rest of the characters, particularly Hill and Churchill seem perfectly happy to manipulate, exploit, and even cause physical harm to others in order to achieve their aims. Having a film filled with dislikeable characters is a difficult gambit to pull off, requiring clear intent behind this reasoning and a strong execution of characters themselves. Fortunately, Lanthimos achieves both, creating a fascinating story that shows characters plotting against and reacting to each other in quick succession. The film plays out almost like a game of chess filled with short and powerful scenes where there is a clear winner and loser and where everyone has their own strategy.
One of the main reasons this works so well is the acting, especially from Coleman. One of the flaws I had with Lanthimos’s other works, such as Dogtooth, The Lobster, and Killing of a Sacred Dear, is that whilst the stories were engaging and technical elements were interesting to experience, the acting often felt monotonic, dispassionate and disengaged with the material. One could argue that this was the effect he was going for, but whilst this may be the case, I found it often disengaging and slightly distracting. Here, there is none of that. All the actors are giving a really strong performance, varied and thought-through. Everyone’s motivations are clear and understandable and are really entertaining to watch as an audience member. You find yourself coming to conclusions about a character that soon have to be revaluated as the story progresses. There’s no clear easy answer to this story and any form of high ground a character may have is as fickle and malleable as a bouncy castle.
the camera works allows you to explore and enjoy the beautiful rooms of Hatfield House
Stylistically, the film appears very intense and sinister, matching the tone created by the story and characters. Violins play out minor chords at just the right moments, scenes are lit almost entirely by flickering candles and fireplaces, the shadows moving across the faces of the characters in a way that reflects their fickle nature and the camera works allows you to explore and enjoy the beautiful rooms of Hatfield House (providing the work with authenticity period accuracy tones and visuals that likely the best of built sets could not). The costumes used in this film are also beautiful; a wide variety of colours, styles, and materials are used to demonstrate the state of each of the characters as well as the demonstrating the level of power that each person possesses.
In short, The Favourite is a great film to begin the year with. It’s clever story, wonderfully stylised way of visual filmmaking, intriguing and memorable performances, and a powerful and symbolic use of rabbits, create an engaging and interesting film experience, that’ll keep any viewer wide eyed and intrigued by events on screen. A powerful look at exploitation, manipulation and power-play that will keep your mind active and analytical long after you have seen it.