#47 — The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018)
When powdered wigs, heavy dresses, and ornate waistcoats are hauled to set, the resulting movie is likely to be stiffened by affected refinement. Adhering to patterns set by countless period dramas before, action is rendered with rectitude and restraint, whatever course the drama takes. It is one of the rules of cinema that draws on cinematic antecedents rather than a proper consideration of the probable truths of the time. Human nature hasn’t shifted all that much in the last few centuries, so all the callous opportunism and unseemly pettiness of the modern age must have been present way back when. If anything, the lack of impulse-checking shame that comes from external scrutiny must have prompted more vulgar manifestations of base behavior to ooze to the surface.
Luckily, Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos isn’t one for refinement. Or at least his version of it emerges in the lovely precision of visuals rather than the depiction of whatever milieu his camera is trained upon. The Favourite tells a true story — or at least a story populated by real life people and informed by the times and events they grappled with — set during the reign of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) as the ruler of England. Ill and petulant, Anne is mostly detached from her duties, relying heavily on the influence of Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), a confidante and intimate friends. Their relationship is roiled by the entrance of Abigail (Emma Stone), a servant girl with a cunning for upward mobility. Lady Sarah and Abigail engage in seething battles of one-upwomanship as Queen Anne bumbles and beams in the criss-crossing waves of their calculated affection.
All this palace intrigue is treated with feverish intensity by Lanthimos, who occasionally uses a fisheye lens to give a warped, trippy look to the massive rooms of the cruel elite. He also favors the bleakly funny, taking the screenplay (co-credited to Deborah Davis
Tony McNamara) and heightening its sharpness, especially in the barbed interplay between figures openly plotting their schemes for better positioning in the eyes of the monarch. Enacted with savage assurance by a luminous cast (which also includes Nicholas Hoult, a paragon of prickly, preening imperiousness as an oppositional parliamentarian), the verbal exchanges on screen drip with shimmering acid.
Ribald and ruthless, The Favourite is a delightful example of Lanthimos’s determined rejection of staid storytelling. It’s a moldy truism that drama is driven by conflict. Lanthimos is a creator who persistently offers the reminder that conflict is sure to leave a lot of wreckage behind.