The Greek filmmaker, Yorgos Lanthimos, was born in Athens where he also went to Film School. But as an aspiring film director, getting projects off the ground was a challenge because there is no real film industry in Greece. So Lanthimos shot commercials and music videos, invested his money, and, by working with friends, made several films, including the 2009 Oscar-nominated breakout hit, Dogtooth. In 2015, Lanthimos transitioned to English-language films with The Lobster, followed by The Killing of a Sacred Deer. His latest film, The Favourite, represents a career high, both critically and commercially. Propelled by razor-sharp dialog, fantastic performances, lush costume work, and the most elaborate wigs you’ll ever see, it received 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.
Loosely based on true events, The Favourite takes place in early 18th century England where a servant, Abigail, played by Emma Stone, arrives for employ at the Court of Queen Anne, played by Olivia Coleman. Abigail is the cousin of Sarah Churchill, played by Rachel Weisz, who is Anne’s lover and chief advisor. All three performances are remarkable, with Coleman’s Oscar-winning portrayal of the not-so-bright Queen particularly delightful. But it’s Stone’s Abigail we’re asked to identify with, and it’s her character arc that’s the most satisfying as she reveals herself to be the most adaptable and cutthroat of the bunch. As such, Abigail wastes no time insinuating herself into the Queen’s inner circle and hatching plans to ensure her survival. The end result is an enthralling three-way power struggle that’s a pure joy to watch.
It’s worth noting that Lanthimos is a big fan of Stanley Kubrick and Luis Bunuel because it reflects in his work, from the precise, almost clinical, compositions of the former, to the dark, absurdist humor and scathing social critique of the latter. And yet, like all true auteurs, he has a unique style all his own, and one of the many pleasures of The Favourite is the fascinating alchemy of his signature touches, such as slow motion, quirky dance choreography, deliberately un-erotic sexual encounters, and bizarre scenarios involving animals.
The Favourite also boasts a strong visual aesthetic that reinforces the themes of the film. Wide-angle lenses and low camera angles are used to create a claustrophobic, fish-bowl effect to convey a sense that the characters are trapped in a world of their own creation. Even the boxy layout of the credits and intertitles seem to suggest walls and cages.
Lanthimos’ films have long been embraced by film buffs. And while The Favourite has no shortage of idiosyncratic flourishes that more discriminating cinephiles will enjoy, it’s all within the service of a story that’s more entertaining and accessible to general audiences than any of his previous, more challenging films. To that end, The Favourite is yet another triumph from one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary cinema.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski.