When one watches a Yorgos Lanthimos film, one must be prepared for a bit of nastiness. Or rather, an orgy of nastiness. Whatever cynical pessimism one feels towards one’s fellow man, or woman, as in the case of his latest film, The Favorite, set in the English royal court of Queen Anne (reigning 1702-1714), one leaves the theater with that cynicism turned to loathing.
One must also be prepared to see this slide into misanthropy executed with brilliant and courageous artistic flare. The writing, directing, art direction, music, cinematography, and most particularly, the acting, is all of such a high caliber that one almost forgets that the end goal is degradation.
Stanley Kubrick, of course, is the grand master of films that speak to man’s brutality in the most beautiful and inspiring of ways, creating a tension between the subject matter and the execution. Lanthimos snaps that tension by pushing both the subject matter and the style to such an extreme that we enter the realm of emotional and interpersonal Grand Guignol.
Where Kubrick, in all his films but Barry Lyndon is the obvious comparison here, prefers a wide angle lens, Lanthimos widens the lens to a fisheye so that rococo walls bend and swirl in dizzying loops. It’s not constant, but it always feels as if the film and the action is bursting to be free all restraints. Similarly, the characters in Barry Lyndon carry themselves like cultured paradigms, often self-deluded, while the only self-delusion in The Favorite is in the Queen herself. Though she is slowly rotting away with gout, she maintains the delusion that she is a woman in total control. In fact, the principle parties beneath her are engaged in a feral battle beneath the wigs and waistcoats. And finally, where sexual adventurism and power plays were an undercurrent in Kubrick, in Lanthimos they are a flood.
What keeps it afloat? What holds it all together? What makes his films as appealing as they are repellent?
The quick and easy answer are the performances.
Lanthimos casts his films with the finest actors and gets from them performances that ground the action, humanize the grotesqueries, and make the madness bearable. Olivia Colman’s performance as Queen Anne is one of the finest I’ve seen this year. One of the most appealing of actresses, most appealing because of her normality and relatability (Broadchurch), Colman’s Queen is played delicately on the edge of gross incompetency, tragedy (she suffered 17 miscarriages and substituted each lost child with a bunny in and out of a cage), physical decay, sexual hunger, insecurity, and royal privilege. Colman makes every eye twitch, every pout and furrowed brow, limp and laugh charged with ironic significance.
Rachel Weisz, an actress who with good material (The Deep Blue Sea, The Constant Gardener) brings an intelligence, fire, and guarded vulnerability to the screen and makes her one of finest actresses working, plays the role of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, the Queen’s close friend and advisor, with such simmering bravado and confidence that she makes for a formidable opponent. And her opponent in this story is her cousin, Abigail Masham, the favorite of the title, played with a feral impishness by Emma Stone. Stone is at a point in her career, it strikes me, where the question is where to place her. Not in terms of box office, but in terms of level of talent. Is she a peer of Weisz, Colman and Nicole Kidman, all Lanthimos favorites? For many, myself included, this films provides that question with at least the potential of an affirmative. She excels here, and hope she’ll be offered suitably challenging roles in the future.
As for the men in this film, it doesn’t matter. They are support and background, narrative architecture, just as all the servants are near silent framing for the lives of the powerful. It’s the women who count. It’s the women who are holding the palace up. It’s the women who are at battle. It’s the women who connive and scheme. It’s the women who bring humanity slouching towards the edge. Welcome to the Enlightenment. Welcome to the world of Yorgos Lanthimos.