'The Favourite' Is A Sublime Send-Up Of Royal Power Games [NYFF]

A bumbling leader with little idea of the extent of duty and responsibility, surrounded by opportunistic aides looking to gain influence by obsequiously flattering the power broker and swaying the weight of an empire behind their pet cause, a coterie of enablers willing to treat geopolitical conflict like a game with winners and losers... but anyways, enough about the latest Maggie Haberman story about the White House in The New York Times, let's talk about The Favourite!

Perhaps unintentionally given the years-long journey from script to screen, the latest filmic oddity from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos refracts the palace intrigue so integral to today's politics through a funhouse mirror in 18th century England. We've seen countless movies recently that show how the political is personal. The Favourite takes it one step further, showing how the political is interpersonal. Lanthimos revels in the perverse power dynamics across gender and social class that determine the fate of a country. (With some liberties taken, of course, but no one is seeing this for a history lesson.)

What sets The Favourite apart from similar tales of royal bickering, though, is Lanthimos' willingness to depict the blood sport of politics without engaging in it himself. The rivalry that develops between Duchess Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and her social climbing cousin, Baroness Abigail Marsham (Emma Stone), provides nonstop delight as they compete for the pole position among Queen Anne's (Olivia Colman) closest confidants. But the central thrust of the film is not merely to see how far down the bottom of their depravity lies. In doing so, Lanthimos would then just be reinforcing the necessity of the petty gamesmanship.

Lanthimos brings a clinical eye to these dynamics, treating them not as inevitable but deeply abnormal. In his prior works, particularly those made in his native Greece, the filmmaker abstracts the people on screen to the point that their actions seem detached from any recognizable instincts and impulses. His actors do not play characters so much as they play humans altogether, as if they are aliens in a mortal skin who still view it as slightly foreign. That approach does not get as much play in The Favourite, where he directs his trio of actresses towards exaggerated extremes that pump steroids into the already heightened stakes.

The trademark Lanthimos absurdity comes primarily from he and cinematographer Robbie Ryan's shot of choice – the wide shot filmed through a fish-eye lens. This unconventional look frequently reminds viewers of just how warped the reality is before their eyes. Even whilst relegating much of the worldview that made him an international sensation to the aesthetic, The Favourite still feels like a Yorgos Lanthimos movie through and through.

The Favourite Review

Pivoting away from some of the overt absurdism on a story level comes in especially handy when it comes time to drive home the emotional stakes of the film. While Lanthimos gets in plenty of laughs at the expense of all who participate in this treacherous game, be it through a delicious verbal quip or a mischievous facial expression, he's never just observing the game for its own sake. Plenty of films involving cutthroat women revel in pitting them against each other, but The Favourite never devolves into a catfight where one woman comes out on top and the other one is vanquished. In a dark, emotional turn loaded with the psychological heft of an Ingmar Bergman drama, Lanthimos demonstrates how they all lose just by participating.

The film's conclusions land with such a gut-wrenching punch because they do not feel like an abrupt pivot or a tacked-on bit of moralizing from screenwriters Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis. It works to devastating effect thanks to Lanthimos' insistence on raw, unvarnished emotion from his cast. Baroque in style though their performances may be, all the actors never lose sight of the insecurity and desperation driving their characters.

This finds most effective expression through Emma Stone, magnetic and alluring as she's ever been, whose Machiavellian maneuvers to advance out of the servant's quarters begin to rot away at her from the inside. Olivia Colman, meanwhile, effortlessly maneuvers her often grotesque monarch from a tyrannical figure to a tragic one. And Rachel Weisz conveys the despair of a woman dislodged from a lofty perch with an unrivaled ferocity. Seriously, I pity the folks at Fox Searchlight who have to figure out into which category to slot these three excellent actresses for awards consideration – each has a full, rich dramatic arc and functions as the lead in their own story. (And while the pleasures of The Favourite derive primarily from the women, both Nicholas Hoult and Joe Alwyn turn in excellent work as the men who are often humiliated by the fearsome threesome.)

Lanthimos denies us the easy satisfaction of scores settled or vengeances exacted in The Favourite. By directing our attention to the toll these battles of wits take on the participants and everyone around them, he guides the film towards more rewarding territory for those willing to sit and interrogate their discomfort. This introspective take on the political jousting match is expertly calibrated and perfectly timed – a welcome dose of belly laughter chased down with a shot of bitter sorrow.

/Film rating: 10 out of 10