Savannah Oakes’s review published on Letterboxd:
The Favourite is somehow Yorgos Lanthimos’ (The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer) tamest and most accessible work. Still it’s playing in dicey water: Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her best friend and secret lover, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) are put at odds when Lady Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives and slowly rises from servant to much more. It’s a historical tail that’s essentially All About Eve but a period piece with more sex, a war raging and lesbians... so strictly better on all counts.
This is Lanthimos’ first film without his consistent writing partner, Efthymis Filippou. Neither of their hands have touched this piece, but at least Lanthimos’ playful creativity is all over his direction.
Much like his other films The Favourite is biting in its humor, blunt in its conflict and with characters treading uncertain but dangerous waters. Unlike those films there’s more middle grown to find our characters in. No one is shown simply. There are no obvious evils--no person, no relationship--nor any advantage. Yet, watching the film unfold, I felt the most maniacal I’ve felt watching a movie since Nightcrawler. It gets in your skin and lets you be a part of this silly but dangerous world in the best way. It’s affecting but not a shocking way.
A lot of this is due to the unparalleled work by the cast of actors. All the actress in the film--Stone, Weisz and Colman--are all capable actress with immense talent. Still they all do something different here. Lanthimos is able to see something in his actors that just needs to be brought out just a little more and it serves to make them expand their talents and flourish. None is that more true this time around than with Emma Stone.
Emma Stone is not a sexual actress. That is not to say she has not been dubbed sexy by her mostly male audience members but up until now her roles have been mostly sexless. Even her breakout role in “Easy A” was more about how she hasn’t had sex then the rumor that she has. Here she is a new woman who uses her sex appeal not in the stereotypical sense. This is, obviously because of the circumstances of the film: the target of her prowess is a much older woman, the time period, her rival, etc. However, it serves to parallel her ambition in a more methodical way. It’s less about “sex is power” and more about “sex is just one of my powers”. It’s merely a tool Stone let’s her character use depending on which character she interacts with and which conflict she finds herself in. given this, she could find herself in a lot of inconsistencies, but she measures it all out.
Her acting counterpoints are the harsh and equally dangerous nemisis Rachel Weisz. Much like Stone, she has a lot to work with and comes into the film with a lot of past work as the compassionate or at least empathetic protagonist or girlfriend. Weisz captures Lady Sarah’s few moments of true confidence as equally as her threatening forays against her enemies.
Colman does the real dance. She is desperate, delicate, child-like in her joys and at the same time psychotic. Her character is physically wasting away but at the same time playing with all the toys in her dollhouse. She grasps for whatever affection she can and the audience can’t blame her for it because Colman has such a grasp of Anne’s anguish that we can’t help but go with wherever the wind blows her. Much like we can’t tell who to blame for who she’s become, Colman’s performance won’t let us point the finger either.
The supporting male cast provides necessary fun and menace. At the top are greats like Mark Gatiss as Lady Sarah’s husband, Lord Marlborough, and James Smith as Godolphin the Prime Minister. The real shining star is Nicholas Hoult who is also outside his comfort zone. Sweet Hoult hasn’t been this indecent and surly since his teenage performance on the UK’s Skins. He provides the film with a consistent villain while at the same time making him admirable. He doesn’t play too many games and always seems to be honest about putting himself first.
As far as the look of the film goes, there’s few that will match it this year. It has a mesmerizing use of natural light that is both authentic but matches the mood of each setting: romantic, mysterious, dangerous or becoming. It shifts it’s tone the same way the characters do and just as they do, it is seamless.
I’m still unsure what Lanthimos experiment is with his extreme wide lenses--the fisheyes. They’re used sparingly enough but are definitely pointing somewhere but my searching brain hasn’t fixated on any necessary purpose. It’s a clearly distorted state of events on a historical piece of the heightened space at which Lanthimos and his actors play around in is always on the cusp of the kind of severity the fisheye interrupts the audience with.
Like any period piece the production design, costumes and make-up will make you swoon. Much like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, the film crew was given license to film on the actual location of the “supposed” events. The main location--Hatfield House--is grand and expansive and they use every inch of it perfectly.
Filling the high-ceilings, the aching hearts and devilish intents of our characters is a great period score. Unlike Lanthimos’ other films, he’s turned to published classics. The score which features music by classical composers like Bach, Handel and Vivaldi. This is bold given the scores from his other films have aided in giving the deadpan and biting humor all the more bite. Here it also services to aid the delicate and fine tone and rhythm of the film while also aiding the many conflicts. It adds realism, heightens the drama in the character’s conflict but also service to add that same bite in an ironic sense.
Though tamer than his other films in violence and shock-value it’s dancing in the same cold waters. It splashes about with cruelty, sex and the monstrosity of human nature while all the while making sure everyone--including its characters--are able to have a laugh. Perhaps the major difference is its heart, it’s seldom there, but if you keep watch for it there’s much more to unpack than Lanthimos fans have ever been granted. It’s in the whispers at candlelight, the confessions over tea, the declarations after the servants have been sent away. Believe someone when they show you who they are--every face they unveil.
Like Lanthimos’ other films, it’s not afraid of being ugly and thus showing humanity’s ugliness to the world. There’s a constant war raging outside and within the walls. Strategy and intrigue brew in and out as well. Meanwhile, the audience is left to sympathize with its Queen--an insufferable woman--as we, like her, go from side to side, conflict to conflict, unsure of who to believe and which horse to bet on. Much like Queen Anne, we all want one thing, to lay down and have someone rub our sores away. This movie won’t do that.