To call Yorgos Lanthimos an acquired taste would be an insult to understatements; his movies run the gamut from squirm-inducing to downright impossible to watch. In 2015, his English-language debut The Lobster won critics’ raves and more than a handful of awards, but there were plenty of people who saw it and just stared at the screen afterward wondering what the heck they had just sat through.
Lanthimos is back at it again with The Favourite, a wicked, sharp, and entirely esoteric film that will scramble the brains of 99% of moviegoers. And those whose brains aren’t scrambled will most likely be simply pretending their brains aren’t scrambled. And that’s considering the fact that it is easily his most “accessible” film to date. Just keep in mind—this is a man whose idea of “normal” is something that Wes Anderson may find just a wee bit too over-the-top.
Olivia Colman stars as Queen Anne, who ruled Great Britain in the early 18th century and who, by all accounts, was a physical and psychological mess. Plagued by gout and prone to host duck races in the grand foyer, Anne certainly kept things interesting in the royal court. Her right-hand man was a woman, Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, played with grace and nuance by Rachel Weisz. Eventually, we learn the two are also lovers—despite being on different sides of the aisle—and it’s a situation Sarah exploits for all its worth, as she tries to get her own agenda through Parliament.
When Sarah’s estranged cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) comes to find work, she falls in with Sarah immediately and, soon after, with the Queen, too. Before long, she has discovered an exploit-worthy situation of her own, determined to finagle her way even closer to the Queen, at the expense of her cousin.
Lanthimos, who makes “thinking outside the box” look like a day at the office, gives The Favourite a fresh and interesting feel, relying on everything from the liberal use of a fish-eye lens (courtesy of cinematographer Robbie Ryan) to a whack-a-doo score that includes works by everyone from Schumann to Luc Ferrari to Elton John.
The Favourite at times feels like 1984’s Amadeus on LSD, at others like Tom Petty’s 1985 video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, and the rest of the time like a black-comedy version of Dangerous Liaisons. It’s fun at times, jarring at others, and rarely, if ever, does it feel anything close to conventional.
Colman, Weisz, and (especially) Stone all do marvelous work, dry and droll as the day is long, and each goes just far enough so as to not cross the line into buffoonery. Their work is worthy of all the awards-season buzz it’s getting, and there’s no doubt in my mind they will each have at least a few new pieces of hardware on their mantles in the near future.
Though on the surface The Favourite may look like something from the staid Merchant-Ivory world, it’s anything but, and though it has perhaps the narrowest audience of any movie this year, those who just sit back and let the madness in will be handsomely rewarded with the black licorice treat of the movie season.