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‘The Favourite’: a study of caprice

One of Yorgos Lanthimos' more approachable films is the recent release "The Favourite," which I reviewed for Spokane Public Radio. Following is a transcription of that review:

If movies about royalty have taught us anything, it’s that monarchs can be fickle. Think of Henry the 8th and his half-dozen wives.

In the face of such capriciousness, members of the royal court who seek favor must do so with care. So, over the millennia, smart hangers-on have resorted to the age-old strategy of flattery.

Britain’s Queen Anne ruled from 1702 to 1714. And among those who surrounded her were two such smart women, cousins as it turns out, who vied with each other for the queen’s affections. The competition they waged is the basis for Greek-born filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ newest film “The Favourite.”

Lanthimos isn’t exactly a household name for American filmgoers. His cinematic stock in trade, best exemplified in his previous two films “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” is a study of existence that strays from dark humor to a kind of studied existential horror.

In “The Favourite,” Lanthimos – for the most part – sidles up closer to his own personal brand of humor, even if, ultimately, the laughs fade before the images of our three principal characters do.

Rachel Weisz plays Sarah Churchill, who carries the title of Duchess of Marlborough (her husband is one of the queen’s trusted military heroes). A friend of Anne’s since childhood, Sarah wields immense power – all subject to the queen’s whims, forcing Sarah to be both kind and – when she feels the need – to be cruel.

Because Anne, as played by Olivia Colman, is overweight, afflicted by gout, and introverted, causing her to defer to Sarah – but also, at times, to erupt in infantile fits of pique.

Then enters Abigail Hill (played by Emma Stone), a woman of reduced circumstances, who is hired by her cousin Sarah – and who, over time, ingratiates herself to the queen. And who, again over time, replaces Sarah as the focus of the queen’s affections.

This story – the basis of it true, the specifics as director Lanthimos details them wrapped up in speculation and fantasy – would be interesting all on its own. But Lanthimos has a visual style that would enhance even the best screenplays.

First there’s the cinematography, by Robbie Ryan, which gives “The Favourite” a ringing sense of authenticity, many scenes lit seemingly only by candlelight. Then there’s the camera-work, typically artful of Lanthimos, in which a variety of lenses, at times, enhances the surreal emotional feel the film is striving to achieve.

And yet many more contribute to that feel, including the wardrobe and makeup crews, who capture the spirit – if not actual fact – of the early 18th-century English court with its wigs and powders and beauty spots. But also the music supervisors and, finally, the editing crew – led by longtime Lanthimos colleague Yorgos Mavropsaridis.

Still, our main focus, naturally, is on the three principal actresses (though Nicholas Hoult, as the MP Robert Harley, deserves mention). Weisz is splendidly imperious and Stone more than holds her own among the British cast, though the lesser-known Colman is what truly binds “The Favourite” to history. 

Her Queen Anne is to fickle what Lanthimos himself is to offbeat cinema.