If you take the beautiful visual asthetic from Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and populate it with the jumping madness of Terry Gilliam characters with a few pinches of sharply worded dialog from other pieces, then you might get the closest thing to a grasp on The Favourite.
There’s something about historical dramas that are based on real people with beautifully crafted costumes, make-up and painterly composed shots that make you think that you are in for a quiet time with plenty of manners. This mentality is probably why the movie is so striking in the first place. Because though it takes place within a palace, has queens and high social standing people, this is a story of ego, treachery and deplorable that is just as shocking now as it would have been them.
The story opens in 1708 and Britain is in the middle of a war with France, Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) reigns and is none too interested in the minute details of the war or even ruling the country, more about having hot chocolate (which upsets her stomach), playing with her seventeen rabbits and building a castle for her dear Sarah (Rachel Weisz). Sarah is best friends with Queen Anne and has her ear and those with the queen’s ear has her power. She uses this to extend the war with France and make other manipulations like raising the local tax rate. Opposing many of Sarah’s decisions is Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), the Earl of Oxford.
Arriving however is Abigail (Emma Stone), a lady whose father lost the family fortune and lost her in a bet so she is down on luck and is seeking employment as the help in the palace. She and Sarah are distant cousins so she gets a position in the kitchen.
It is then revealed that the relationship between Anne and Sarah is not strictly platonic, but they do go to bed with each other. Abigail learns this and seeks a way to climb back to a position of power, by becoming the queens new favorite (hence the title). She makes allegiances with Harley and pays the queen flattering complements unlike Sarah that is entirely honest with her when her new makeup makes her look like a badger or denies her hot chocolate.
The setting is politics and power, therefore the characters use their words like swords. There are eloquent back and forths between characters that impulse ruin for the other or powerful allegiances to be made and sometimes when the other is obviously defeated they simply blatantly swear into the others face.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos has a reputation of being bold, masterful as well as delightfully insane. He made a name for himself in 2009 with Dogtooth about a family where they keep the children separated from the rest of the world and then went on to gather critical acclaim through The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. I have actually never seen one of his movies before but have been aware of him. This was both a surprise as well as everything I was expecting by what I had learned about him.
Cinematographer Robbie Ryan utilizes wide angle lenses to capture as much of the characters and the set in all it’s detail, along with this are a few atmospheric slow panning shots, scenes lit by fire or candlelight that invoke Barry Lyndon and a few times where the fish-eye lens is utilized to make the whole image appear warped.
History is filled with wonderful stories about people in a position of power rose to it or kept it through deceptive and cutthroat means. But history is history and a movie is a movie and can always do with a little bit of embellishing to spice it up. The Favourite takes the names and positions from actual history and fills in the blank spaces with what if’s that only an insane person would conceive. To be sure Lanthimos is insane, however, he is also brilliant.