The Favourite

The Favourite ★★★★½

Surrealist specialist Yorgos Lanthimos somehow came out of nowhere to become one of my favorite directors of this past decade (“The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”). Then came his costume period drama The Favourite that elevates the new standard of what a costume period drama could or should be. Taking place in eighteenth century England it centers around an inept, haggard queen. But Lanthimos is only vaguely interested in telling us scholastic information. What he’s saying is that there have likely been umpteenth scenarios in our world history when a royal leader has been coached by aides and servants while other esteemed politicians manipulate orders to change history their own way.

Olivia Colman is one of the lesser known monarchs as the feckless Queen Anne who hardly understands the scope of the war her country is engaged in (France is the enemy). Rachel Weisz is Lady Sarah Churchill, a First Lady, a chief of staff, a spokeswoman, and lover to the Queen. Emma Stone shows up as Abigail, the cousin to Churchill, who is granted the lowly position of maid but quickly plots her rise. Abigail too can assist in healing the Queen’s ailments, serve as companion, and offer sexual favors to the Queen.

Lanthimos shows you things that don’t happen in other, too-square costume pictures. There are shots of all the maids sleeping together in cramped corners, or secondhand servants getting splash-on baths. The men often leer at the women, often with intent of seduction yet off-key enough to come off debauched. The dialogue is very spikey here, far more sexually suggestive than your average tween flick. You realize women had to use their wit to much more mighty effect to fend off unwanted advances. Stone leads a man into kiss, and then bites his lip to deal with one man, and in another moment, knees a man in the crotch. There’s also, in it’s moments of gaiety, freer scenes of old century people cutting loose. Everybody now and again got drunk and naked in those times.

The film, lavish and baroque, also has some of the best cinematography of the past decade. All of it is achieved with natural lighting, and like Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon,” Lanthimos lights the night scenes by candlelight only. We often feel like we are seeing through a looking glass as if spying on specimens of the past, particularly when a fisheye lens is used to achieve this.

Reducing to the film to plot (which should not be the main emphasis), we see the women are cunning with each other to win the queen’s favor, subverting and deceiving one another, enacting maliciousness. I think one of the women is just too damn cunning for her own good, and we see the winning is far too apparently one-sided. The tragicomedy becomes just tragedy, yet there’s one great final scene that’s far more artistic than most films of its kind are ever allowed: a superimposed image of three things that suggest complacency by one, servitude by another, and a bevy of rabbits that is likely going to be an arbitrary and unceasing obsession.

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