Don’t let anyone who says The Favourite is director Yargos Lanthamos’s “most accessible” film fool you — if we’re honest, that’s not saying much. This is a guy who makes truly, truly odd films: The Lobster was supremely strange in its alternate-reality brilliance; The Killing of a Sacred Deer was a bit unsettling in its exacting perniciousness. The Favourite, now, is somehow simultaneously completely unlike either of those films, and yet undeniably stamped with Lanthamos’s sensibility.
Which is to say, this is far from a mainstream film, and if you haven’t seen those other films, you’re not going to have the same bar by which to gauge how much more “accessible” it is. Most audiences will be thrown for a loop by it. I kind of was, myself — and I did like it. I think.
I suppose you could call this an alternate reality of sorts as well, given the subtly anachronistic attitudes of its characters. The basic gist of the story is pretty simple: 18th-century England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is easily manipulated by Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who is thus governing in her stead, butting heads with members of Parliament (particularly one played with effective petulance by Nicholas Hoult), and also serves as Queen Anne’s lover. Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), whose family has lost their station and rendered her a maid, shows up and over time gets herself into the queen’s good graces, to the point of genuine rivalry and competition.
There’s a lot to love about this scenario for a movie plot, not least of which is the deliciousness of the period-drama between these three women, who are the entire focus of the film. And in their performances, all three actresses are fantastic, particularly Colman, who has a screen presence both vulnerable and raw.
That said, it’s the unfolding of this story, the execution, that can easily leave one bemused. Lanthimose has a clearly dark sense of humor, and The Favourite has its share of genuine laughs, even if most of them mask something serious. There’s a unique authenticity to the pent-up emotions boiling within each character. There are also semi-regular detours into scenes that vary from bizarre to baffling, such as when Abigail walks in on a group of men giddily lobbing fruits at a naked chubby man, who seems very much to be enjoying it.
There is one thing I genuinely hated — an unusual single glaring flaw in the midst of an otherwise impressively meticulous production. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan evidently has a thing for fisheye lenses, often presenting each side of the screen with everything bent nearly to the point of distortion. On occasion he will quickly pan from side to side while using this visual presentation, and frankly it’s annoyingly distracting. Curiously, the production design, and even the cinematography the rest of the time, is spectacular. Generally speaking, The Favourite is quite striking to look upon. It’s just too bad it sometimes has to get literally warped on the sides.
As for the story itself, it leaves much to ponder — particularly the ending, which, let’s, say, lacks clarity (Queen Anne’s many pet rabbits factor prominently). It’s easy to feel like one is not picking up on a kind of depth that might more easily be recognizable upon repeat viewings.
The Favourite is the kind of film that comes as no surprise to be a critical darling, but even with its healthy amount of comedy, will still strike many as being inaccessibly cerebral. Every detail is weighted with intention; it’s identifying what all those intentions are that may pose a challenge. There are some who love such challenges, and therein lies the appeal. Personally, I’m still contemplating exactly how I feel about it — but I look forward finding out if a second viewing might help me decide.