What animal do you see below?
Is it a rabbit or a duck? Or both?
Rabbits and ducks are both very present in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, a darkly comic political biopic about a trio of women and their respective rises and falls. The rabbit/duck illustration also serves as an apt metaphor for our allegiances to these characters, our perspectives and sympathies shifting depending upon what we bring into the film ourselves, as well as how we read what Lanthimos and the actresses are doing in any given scene. This underlying competition for status even affects the categories of film awards–which are the true “lead” and “supporting” roles here? Olivia Colman will likely win an Academy Award for Best Actress in her vividly silly portrayal of Queen Anne of England, while Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone have been relegated to “supporting actress” status for cousins Lady Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hill, respectively. All three give 100% to their roles; all three are both leads and supporters, heroes and villains. There are no protagonists or antagonists here; there are simply characters, ones which we will either love or hate, often at the same time. Rabbits and ducks.
The Favourite is like Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve meets Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, blurring the lines between pastiche and parody of period-piece chamber dramas. Lanthimos’ gratuitous use of a wide fish-eye lens matches the narrative content, bloating and distorting the image we’re seeing into something large and grotesque. The manipulated images appear larger than life, at-once naturalistic and hallucinatory. The elaborate costumes and scenery come alive with the natural lighting via cinematography Robbie Ryan, making the daylight scenes with awash with shadowy contrasts from the grey English sun, while the evening scenes look darkly warm and gloomy in the vast candlelit halls. These pitch black shadows perfectly complement the humor. The three lead performances fill in these images with wild-eyed stares and cutting dialogue, their presence felt just as much as viewed. Ironically, there isn’t a standout favorite performance for me–they’re all three wonderfully nasty women.
Known for his absurdist deadpan fables (Dogtooth, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Lanthimos tones back the off-putting weirdness with The Favourite, trading in the bizarre and macabre for straightforward political farce. England is at war with France, and the newish two-party system of the Whigs and Tories are both vying for the Queen’s favor, with Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) working all the angles he can. Between the snappy dialogue and the decadence of Queen Anne’s court, the melodramatic and freakish lurk within the politics; there’s still an anachronistic goofy dance sequence. Even as it remains quite accurate in its general details–there really was a historical political rivalry between Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hall for Queen Anne’s favor–there are just as many fictional additives to keep us entertained. But that’s about it; I was entertained but not moved, never feeling prompted to deeply consider the ideas or characters beyond the moment they were on screen. Even as the direction and comedy is confident and bold, it’s unclear as to what the point of it all might be beyond keeping us briefly distracted from our present-day two-party political nightmares.
In a year with biting political satire like The Death of Stalin and BlacKkKlansman, period-piece biographical dramas with lush cinematography like Roma and Cold War, and exceptional actresses giving phenomenal performances in a plethora of films that I can’t even possibly list them all here, The Favourite comes across as another one in the crowd of great cinema. It’s good; and that’s…fine. In this, The Favourite feels more like a trifle than a feast, a plate of empty calories which are sure to delight for a moment, even as it fades from memory after a good nap. Or, and my apologies in advance for the image, to choose a crassly apt metaphor due to the film’s repeated motif of onanism, The Favourite is downright masturbatory: an empty (albeit pleasurable, even attractive) diversion in the distorted form of true substance. So, enjoy your rabbit. Or duck. Or both.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5083738/