It happens every year. Of the dozens of movies that open between November and January that are touted as “The Year’s Best, Oscar-Bound, and An Instant Classic,” there’s always one in the pack that doesn’t live up to its hype. In fact, it’s usually a film I dislike so passionately, I wonder what on Earth my colleagues were raving about. Last year, it was Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri (seriously, have you seen it more than once? If so, why?). This year, its Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite.
During the 18th century, Queen Anne (played by Olivia Colman) ruled England during a time of war. According to the film, Queen Anne relied on her most trusted colleague, Lady Sarah (played by Rachel Weisz) who was constantly at her side and calling most of the shots. The sudden appearance of the desperate Abigail (played by Emma Stone) shakes things up, as Abigail makes a power play for Queen Anne’s attention and challenges Lady Sarah’s authority for the Queen’s favor and approval.
Lanthimos has a distinct cinematic voice and, certainly by design, his films are unforgettable. His breakthrough was Dogtooth, about parents raising their children in an unorthodox, quite sadistic manner. Then there was The Lobster, the fantasy-satire that began with a novel premise than lumbered off into a pointless, cheerfully vile, art house self-parody. I kind of like The Killing of a Sacred Deer, his chilling and nearly impossible to describe Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman-led examination of the literal sacrifice a doctor must make to save/destroy his family. Lanthimos allows for discomforting humor, revolting imagery, and intellectual musings to drive the narratives of his work. He’s a striking filmmaker and deserves his ever-growing cult following, but allow me to be even more firm in my honesty: He’s talented but I’d rather be in line at the DMV for three hours than sit through any of his movies again.
Like Lars Von Triers when he’s trying too hard to shock, Lanthimos is an enthusiastic provocateur and his films, as fun as they are to discuss, are endurance testers. The Favourite boasts an impressive production but is too self-consciously grotesque and on-the-nose in its observations.
I loved Colman’s excellent, layered performance. Colman’s take on Queen Anne is intriguingly child-like and the character progresses in unexpected ways. Colman’s work is the best thing about the film overall. Weisz, on the other hand, is serviceable at best and mostly one-note. I’ve liked some of Weisz’s work in the past but someone more dynamic should have been cast as the villainous Lady Sarah. Stone is good and holds her own. However, like Weisz, Stone doesn’t shine as brightly as she should. Although she’s a recent Oscar-winner (as is Weisz), Stone is still hit-and-miss with her film choices and the consistency of her work. Coleman alone powers the film and creates a lingering fascination.
Robbie Ryan’s cinematography offers fish-eyed lenses, brisk pans, and natural lighting but, despite how unusual Lanthimos’ approach to a period piece is, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon did all of this far better. So did Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons, still unbeatable as a naughty and nasty costume drama on the ill-mannered behavior of spoiled power-grabbers.
The screenplay stumbles through excrement-tainted mud (sometimes literally) for too long and feels endless. It’s all too obvious where this is going from the very beginning, and it’s all too happy to kill time by filling up yet another chamber pot. As a commentary on the wealthy abusing the poor, The Favourite is as obvious and familiar as its by-the-book revenge tale turns. At least Merchant Ivory films had layered characters and lush visuals to distinguish their famous period pieces; all Lanthimos has is an endless supply of gross visuals and the rawness of the dialogue to distinguish it. While this plays like an enthusiastic middle finger to refined works like The Young Victoria or Elizabeth, Lanthimos always finds ways to put-off and distance viewers every time interest grows.
Of all the highly touted, would-be Oscar contenders to come out this season, this one is my least favourite.
Rated R / 92 Min.
Image courtesy IMDB