Even if you find yourself unable to stomach the overwhelming emotional remove of his films, how can one not to be impressed by the unique constructs of Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos? With each film he seems to find more and more ways to conceive imaginative forms of cruelty from a place of deep empathy. The Favourite, Lanthimos’ now third English language film, could very well be his cruelest—taking place during the brief reign of the ailing Queen Anne, the film follows her power-hungry entourage as they attempt to manipulate and exploit the Queen’s lusts and longings to secure their place amongst the British ruling-class. Here’s a film where emotions don’t envelop in the story’s drama but, instead, are used by its characters as pawns in a psychological chess game.
Set during the War of the Spanish Succession, The Favourite rather emphasizes on the war that wages in the confines of the Queen’s royal household. In it, the ailing royal spends most her days in agonizing pain, brought on by persistent fevers and illness, momentarily succored by her close friend and confidante Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Sarah is the Queen’s designated “favourite,” possessing significant power over court politics. This intimate relationship is shaken, however, by Sarah’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) who appears in the household a lowly serf but through cunning and wit wins the good graces of Queen Anne. Abigail’s quick ascension in the ranks puts Sarah’s position as “favourite” in jeopardy.
The game of favorites that envelopes between the Queen’s old friend and the new girl allows Yorgos Lanthimos to channel the more amusing, delectable quality of his filmmaking. The Favourite easily ranks as his most watchable work, not the least because Yorgos Lanthimos drops the deliberately mundane setting of his previous films in favor of a far more sumptuous canvas, a lavish 18th century production that gives the film an instantaneous appeal. Impressively, the film remains quite the yarn despite its faithfulness to history. As a battle of wits between class divides, The Favourite holds an almost literary appeal, comparable to theatrical chamber plays, bodice-rippers and comedy-of-errors—if only superficially.
Where Lanthimos’s plunge into history indeed yields a dark emotional core, something is lost in translation with The Favourite as the Greek director makes the dramatic shift from contemporary satire to historical burlesque. Delightful as it may be, The Favourite is Lanthimos at his most coldest and disaffected—an idea that might seem strange given that I would The Favourite as being easily his most approachable film. Part of this approachability, however, comes from a lack of personal investment on Lanthimos’s part, as he relegates the unsavory nature of his themes onto a rich and magnificent canvas. The Favourite, his most madly comical film to date, almost reaches the point of slapstick. It’s an impressively conceived period farce but it’s approach to history, in this fashion, never achieves the dramatic virtuoso that made steely tragedies of his previous films.
The humor in The Favourite requires a level of estrangement and distance with history and the upper-class. This is a formula devised by the most ingenious comics, particularly in the works Monty Python and Black Adder. But The Favourite doesn’t so much profit off period farce as it does emotional insight. This renders Lanthimos’ farcical escapades fatally disruptive to his dramatic principles. It can’t even come close, then, to comparing to Lanthimos’ previous films (The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer), black comedies that requires a remarkable level of understanding and empathy to the characters and their situations, despite their comic natures. It forces one to wonder then, when Lanthimos clearly looks down upon the noblemen in goofy powdered wigs tormenting and laughing at a nude overweight jester in the royal household, he’s not inviting us to do the same when all of his humor requires an equal taste for grotesquery and a similar lack of empathy.