“You look like a badger” says Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, as she considers Queen Anne’s heavy, shoddily applied eye makeup. Sarah, played by Rachel Weisz, delivers the line quickly, with deadpan assertiveness. This line is harsh, and as such it’s arrestingly funny— a quick snap of modern comedy within a piece about a historical period long past. This seems to be a common theme. Here, and throughout “The Favourite” we see an opulent past paired with a distinctly modern aesthetic.
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ new film “The Favourite” is a comedy of manners, centering around the court of Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch, in the wake of the Glorious Revolution. She ruled during the unification of England and Scotland and the War of Spanish Succession, yet, Lanthimos’ new film pays little attention to external political events. Rarely do we even leave the bedchamber of the Queen. Instead, the film focuses on Queen Anne’s relationships with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough and Sarah’s younger cousin, Abigail Masham, in their attempts to secure the position as the Queen’s “Favourite.”
Period pieces are so often bogged down with concerns for historical accuracy and seriousness; in opting to forgo a rigorous political and historical narrative, “The Favourite” is able to maintain a refreshing sense of humanity where the actresses are able to shine. In one scene, Abigail and Queen Anne clumsily carry out a dance with bulky crutches. We are met with a honest, seemingly familiar portrait of a relationship. Later, when Sarah spreads mud across her face to form a silly caricature of some member of the court, it’s childlike, and familiar, and again, seamlessly funny. I loved these moments of easy, accessible comedy and the remarkable ability of the movie to switch from levity to intensity. Despite their lavish clothing, at times, the main characters felt like accessible, modern women.
This beautiful exploration of relationships rests on the incredible performances of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone in their respective roles as Queen Anne, Sarah, and Abigail.
Colman’s Anne is characterized by intense variability. The historical Queen Anne had 17 pregnancies, but she was unable to produce an heir. In the film, Anne is a sickly, emotionally distressed woman, tortured by personal loss. She is at times quiet, confused and unassuming, and then suddenly she is angry, commanding, and aggressive. Coleman navigates the disparate aspects of her character with grace, and it feels as if we are given a full portrait of an individual.
As Sarah and Abigail, Weisz and Stone are a stunning pair. Weisz’s Sarah is calculating, cold, and frightening. With a flawless British accent, Stone is a convincing and complex Abigail. We watch her character adapt and display an increasingly sinister side as she navigates the tricky power structures of the Restoration Era court.
As a whole, “The Favourite” is an overwhelming display of feminine power. But the sort of power we are presented with isn’t typical of the period piece genre. Exploring themes such as feminine political power and sexual liberation, “The Favourite” seemed intentionally connected to notions of modern feminism.
The presence of the modern is also clear in the cinematic choices. Throughout the film, cinematographer Robbie Ryan uses extreme wide shots and at times employs a fisheye lens that creates extreme distortion. As an audience member, these shots were strange to watch. I felt suddenly knocked out of the story as I became aware of the distinctly modern cinematic technique, but at the same time, the wide shot drew me in to the opulence of the set design and the immensely rich visual palette. Such shots would seem more at home in Lanthimos’ other, modern, alternate-reality films, like the “Lobster” or “Killing of A Sacred Deer.” The genre of period piece felt hostile to these modern wide shots. But while this forced cohesion of old and new felt strange and eerie, it works so well.
A similar tension manifests in the dialogue. A bold quickness of speech is characteristic of Yorgos Lanthimos’ other films. Lanthimos’ characters usually speak quickly and we always have a sense that there’s a disconnect between the sparseness of their language and their internal complexity. This style of dialogue feels so modern and it’s arresting to hear these words flow out of the mouths of 18th century characters.
Though the intertwining of old and new is what makes “The Favourite” so compelling, towards the end of the movie, aspects of this aesthetic begin to feel heavy handed. Quick, bawdy hyper-intellectual speech combined with ambitious camera work and blaring, aggressive classical music becomes overwhelming. The film is meant to satirize excess, but by the end of two hours, it’s exhausting. The hyper-modern typography used to title each section is hard to read and frustrating to the viewer. And it seems that the film constantly insists that we recognize and applaud its craft. Because of this, we are never able to fully enter into this 18th century world of Anne, Sarah, and Abigail. We watch them from the other side of the screen, alternately touched, horrified, and amused.