Lanthimos Scores Again With "The Favourite"

Fisheye lenses and acrobatic camera movements alone might have carried the day for Yorgos Lanthimos’ British costume drama “The Favourite.” Shot on film, on location in England at Hatfield House, the movie is all-caps pretty. But technical muscle turns out to be just part of the equation that makes the project explode off the screen. Fused with an acid-tongued script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and an indispensable cast (headlined by the utterly magnificent Olivia Colman), the Greek filmmaker’s visual stylings pulse with more power than even his best work previously intimated.

Despite an understated third act, the cumulative effect is thrilling.

“The Favourite” comes only thirteen months after Lanthimos’ maniacal psych-thriller “The Killing Of A Sacred Deer.” It is at once something completely different and totally a Yorgos Lanthimos movie – increasingly a terrific thing. His usual themes of loneliness, manipulation, and corruptive power are actually made subtler here, retrofitted for an eighteenth century tale of sex and subterfuge, all dreamily edited.

Amidst the War of the Spanish Succession, Queen Anne (Colman) shows little concern in commanding Britain in its fight against France. Instead, her failing health leads her to indulge in hobbies like duck racing and doting on her pet rabbits (Lanthimos’ penchant for animal imagery is well-represented here) while the churlish Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), Duchess of Marlborough, effectively rules in Anne’s stead.

Anne’s gout has mostly put her out of commission, but Sarah employs psychological warfare wherever required to get what she wants, when she wants it.

When Sarah’s destitute cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) arrives seeking employment, she’s made a scullery maid – a hard life but a step up from her previous station. Nevertheless, Abigail’s unearthing of a secret romance between Queen and Duchess (whose husband is away fighting her war) proves too good an opportunity for advancement. Abigail’s blackmail of Sarah comes with the precision of pinning a live butterfly to polystyrene, butterfly and pinner studying each other with poison eyes.

In this war of attrition, Abigail’s lowly position gives her a leg up on the prideful Duchess. Or so it seems.

The remainder of the film hinges on Colman’s performance, an intoxicating mélange of loony and sad, her character riding a razor’s edge of knowing glances and utter obliviousness. Stone and Weisz are good – Weisz takes particular delight in the noxiousness of her role – but it’s Colman who’s the sun to their planets. The movie wouldn’t fly nearly as high without her balancing act: one moment inscrutable, the next a wellspring of passion.

The male characters, the openly power-hungry Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) and lovestruck Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), are written and performed nearly as sharply. Together they are comparatively ineffectual second bananas to Anne and her expanding inner circle. The men, Harley in particular, long for power. The women seize it.

If none of this seems especially multiplex-friendly, Stone is a bona fide movie star and her presence should go a long way into bridging the gap for mainstream audiences. And the film’s whole is markedly more accessible than “Sacred Deer.” With it Yorgos Lanthimos keeps stockpiling evidence that he’s one of cinema’s heavy-hitters, a legitimate once-in-a-lifetime talent who we need delighting and shocking us for decades to come.

At its best, his newest feature is larger than life; the kind of spark plug period piece that only comes around once in a queen’s reign. Don’t miss it.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: November 23, 2018 (Limited)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenwriters: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Starring: Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn
MPAA Rating: R (for strong sexual content, nudity and language)