Fox Searchlight/119 min.
Yorgos Lanthimos, the director of such films as Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Lobster, delivers slightly more normal fare with his latest film, The Favourite. Set during the reign of Queen Anne of Great Britain, the film follows two of her ladies-in-waiting: rags-to-riches Abigail, and ambitious but frank Sarah. The former, played by Emma Stone, claims to come from a disgraced noble family, and, upon arriving to the royal residence, uses her skills to get close to the Queen. The latter, played by Rachel Weisz, is Queen Anne’s most trusted confidant, one who clearly states her intentions but has more than herself in mind.
With a script (written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara) that is both comedic and dramatic, this is as much a character study as it is historical fiction. Being set in a royal palace, political intrigue abounds, and characters work around and behind each other as each seek to attain what they desire. Of note is the performance of Nicholas Hoult, who plays Earl Robert Harley. He, along with Sarah and Abigail, seek to earn the favor of the Queen for various reasons. Earl Robert and Sarah are politically opposed, with Robert desiring and end to English involvement to a war on the European continent and Sarah intensely invested in it. Abigail, meanwhile, disguises what she truly cares for, whether it is the crown, kingdom, or herself, it takes the entire film for audiences to find out.
It is this back-and-forth that alerted me to the notion that there isn’t a single protagonist in this film, but rather two, and it’s one of the many changes to the usual narrative and cinematic approach that Lanthimos makes that, while I questioned, I certainly didn’t take glaring issues with. In summary, the writing balances the narrative paths of both Stone’s Abigail and Weisz’s Sarah, with Abigail seeming at first the protagonist, but Sarah still having plenty of meat to her story. Hoult’s Harley pops in every once in a while as a fun treat that belies a certain ambiguity, but is fun to watch nevertheless. And before I forget, Olivia Colman, playing Queen Anne, is perfect.
Accompanying the performances is a staggering cinematic quality. Shot in all natural light, Lanthimos uses dolly shots, many wide angle lenses, and effective close ups to convey his characters thoughts and intentions. The result is an astoundingly clear presentation that I would say is the best-looking film I’ve seen all year, all because it changes the way the real world is presented to me without using any artificial means besides a really expensive camera.
But while the film succeeds in many of the areas it sets out to improve, in so doing, it also falters. The writing, while having a playfully serious tone, sometimes overstays its welcome with a few jabs at purposeful comedy. A formula becomes apparent in the early parts of the film where the script will add up a lot of serious character drama, and then finish off the scene with a joke. Most of the written ones didn’t land for me, and when I caught on to the way they were written in, I became increasingly disappointed. But it wasn’t all for naught, however, as the physically comedic bits, while fewer and further between, make up what the writing lacks. Awkward and unexpected, they don’t waste time and move the story forward more effectively than a punchline.
It is slightly unfortunate that the filmmaking also hamstrings itself with overreach. Although most of the shots are fantastic-looking, calling attention not to the technique but to what is seen onscreen, Lanthimos’s use of wide angle lenses had me asking myself silently: Why? While the close ups and other midrange lenses do well enough to present the changing moods within people and groups, the wides tend to distort the frame in a way that distracts, rather than informs. I love wide angle lenses, but here, it just seems that the filmmakers were looking for a way to present the natural and manmade world in a way that would compensate for its size, and sadly, it misses the mark repeatedly.
But while those issues peep out from the woodwork, it does not detract from the film’s overall quality. The writing, direction, lighting, and performances are all quite stunning, and although those words are trite, I only say it because you need to see the film for yourself to believe it.