Published on December 12th, 2018 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Yorgos Lanthimos has not only done it again with The Favourite, he may have done it in a way that speaks to a broader audience.
A quick glance at Wikipedia says that Queen Anne of Great Britain — the Queen portrayed so brilliantly by Olivia Coleman in The Favourite — was, in fact, quite sickly and well…mad. The film’s competing cousins, Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) and Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), who vie for the coveted “Court Favourite” were in fact very real too and (probably) entertainingly passive aggressive. The war that plays out entirely off screen, between France and England in the early 18th Century, was devastating and controversial, and I’m sure plenty of historians will grumble that the film doesn’t dig deeper into the nuts and bolts of it all. But there is a method to the madness of this pseudo-historical farce. Instead of history, it has an the entirely symbolic and deeply satirical series of questions on its mind. When all is said and done, that is how this Yorgos Lanthimos concoction is best remembered.
The way I see it, The Favourite might as well take place in a made-up fantasy land with a made-up queen playing games with a made-up war. The entirety of its tale takes place behind closed Royal doors, in an unnerving sort of vacuum. A most intriguing stage is set when Abigail seeks employment from her cousin Sarah, who is the current right-hand-woman to Queen Anne. As Sarah takes her under her wing, the rivalry between who will win this mad Queen’s trust quickly and consistently shifts gears. The result is a fascinating romp that is made absurd only through the maddeningly trite bubble of power and manipulation inside of which director Yorgos Lanthimos locks his characters. And fortunately, he displays a vital knack for finding creative ways to lock us inside with them.
However, what truly makes the film a masterpiece and a potential classic is the depth of its satire, the breadth of its allegory. It may sound like a cliché, but in a time where real-life, fascist man-children are running many of the world’s biggest countries, The Favourite is a necessary and pitch perfect reminder of the horrible power vacuum privileged human beings can be caught up in. Its also important currently to have more films about women calling the shots, not only to signify the disgusting behavior patriarchy can spurn, but also to remind us that the flaws in humanity — the vulnerabilities that grow into hatred — are not solely masculine traits. The film is progressive and sophisticated in its use of gender as both a plot device and a symbol, and willingly allows itself room for anachronisms as a result. In fact, its many modern flares, such as its frank sexuality and its dialogue choices like, “I want to see her…a lot” and “I’m rock-hard and its our wedding night,” purposely contradict historically accurate ways of behaving so its uniquely offbeat tone can shine through. Again, probably not going to be a history-buff pleaser, but its focus is much more allegiant to its satire. And since it understands what it is so perfectly, its sings with its deep-seeded but well-evident symbolic substance.
The fact that, historically speaking, the story isn’t as absurd as its may seem makes me wonder if the truth is stranger than the fiction or the fiction is stranger than the truth. If the truth is stranger than the fiction, at least the fiction has, without a doubt, more entertainment value. As the cousins toy with the mad monarch’s political and sexual allegiances, the film is remarkably calculated in its approach to developing this strange triangle of sweet, sweet power. Its historically speculative approach to the closeted homosexuality of Anne anchors the entire film in riveting and weird lust games, yet Lanthimos does not titillate as much as he haunts us with the strange and awkward sex that is almost never just about sex. As if the audience are flies on the wall, he lets us in on a private life in all its stunning and insidious detail. Yet, one gets the sense that we are getting an improved version of history, one that artfully highlights only the most cinematic and allegorical moments in perfectly measured rhythm. For its entire two-hour runtime, I was caught under its spell, never for a moment losing a sense of curiosity despite the somewhat obvious character arc that is crafted.
I also can’t decide if the sun will shine upon this film come Oscar time. On one hand, its star-powered performances are flashy and beautifully executed, and the film is hysterically funny — enough so that my screening, which was made up of probably 70% senior citizens, were busting a gut. If it can entertain mainstream audiences enough, I think they will be willing to accept its stranger moments, including an ending that will certainly prove divisive. But the Oscars can be treacherous and painfully pedestrian, so who the hell knows; it could win Best Picture or get completely shut out. All I can say for certain is that Yorgos Lanthimos, whose previous films were great but too weird to really find a wide audience, has finally married his signature deadpan aesthetic with material that your mom could also enjoy. That is an impressive feat, especially considering the film still retains its teeth, and will surely leave a bite-sized place in your memory that it will call home for quite some time. As I write this, I am still not quite finished working every nuance over from every possible angle. And for a jaded film buff like me, at least, that’s a tell-tale sign of a modern classic.