AFI Fest 2018: The Favourite, by David Bax
In addition to just looking cool, one of the main effects that a fisheye lens has is leaving you unable to forgot about the presence of the camera. This is especially true when that camera, with that lens, is panning. Yorgos Lanthimos does just that, and often, in his newest film, The Favourite. Your typical, staid and handsome costume drama set in the early 18th century would generally rather you not think about the camera and thus break the illusion of being transported to the past. But what Lanthimos does is typical only to himself.
Olivia Colman stars as Queen Anne, whose favorite (the only member of the court allowed to address her as a friend and not as the queen) is Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who acts as a sort of consigliere and proxy ruler for the petulant and easily distracted monarch. One day, Sarah’s distant cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), shows up at the palace—having fallen from grace when her wastrel father lost her in a poker game—looking for work as a maid. Abigail’s charms, though, do not go long unnoticed by the queen and, soon, the two cousins are battling for the position in which Sarah thought herself secure.
The Favourite may not be a traditional period piece but, in its design, Lanthimos treats it as such. The art direction and, especially, the costumes (which are, of course, by Sally Powell) are breathtakingly detailed and elegant. The color temperature is that of soft candles and warm sun. Yet the grandeur is constantly being broken by arch choices like the near-constant head-on reverse dolly shots and by the sound design, in which the firearms used in a genteel afternoon of pigeon shooting feel loud enough to knock walls down. It’s as if Lanthimos waits in hushed awe for a lake to become perfectly still and then heaves a great rock into it. After which, he repeats the process again and again.
That’s just as true of the comedy as it is of the aesthetics. Have I mentioned that The Favourite is a comedy? It’s a boldly silly one, to boot. Posh, noble exchanges are punctuated by crashing anachronisms like “No pressure” or “So, there’s that.” And the less I spoil about the movie’s big dance number, a scene as ridiculous as it is loaded with tension, the better.
The Favourite’s governing comic conceit is that the aristocracy may superficially represent the pinnacle of civilization but their behavior is closer to its nadir. They act selfishly, abuse one another, make messes and refuse to give a shit. This is not, by any means, a novel point of view. Everyone from Jean Renoir to Penn Jillette has made a movie about it. But, if you’re going to say something trite, you could do worse than to say it with as much magnificent panache as Lanthimos has.