Yorgos Lanthimos’ ‘The Favourite’ uses dark humor and suspense to create one of the most unique period pieces to-date

‘The Favourite’ surpasses all expectations and should be the frontrunner this award season


(Courtesy of The Favourite’s Official Facebook Page)

By Matt Martella, Collegian Correspondent

For the most part, 2018 was a disappointing year for film.  This statement is not to say that the majority of movies in 2018 were bad, rather, many films I was eagerly anticipating, incited either by history with a cherished filmmaker or an exceptionally exciting trailer, left me underwhelmed.  When creating a list of my top 10 favorite movies of 2017, I felt what can be best described as agony when forced to omit movies I genuinely loved from my list just because the year was so unconventional with truly great films.  In 2018, I found myself struggling to call some of my top ten films “favorites” of mine because the only merit they have to earn their placement is their indifferent impression left in my mind as opposed to a negative one. I began to wonder if this was the new normal, and 2017’s phenomenal year in film was nothing more than a memory never to be relived again.  There was one last hope for 2018, the film prophetically named “The Favourite” by Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos.  And in the most ironic of twists, it is from the dark and sardonic mind of its filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos that true movie-magic shined its brightest in 2018.

“The Favourite” stars Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz as two aristocratic women in 18th century England as they compete for the position of court “favourite” for the temperamental and deranged Queen Anne (Olivia Colman).  Weisz’s Sarah Churchill is the longtime friend and trusted advisor of the Queen, so much so that she practically runs the country of England and fuels its war with France while Anne locks herself away and tries to eat her way into an early grave.  Churchill is confident, effective, manipulative and, most importantly, established as politically untouchable so long as she maintains her close relationship to the Queen, so when her disgraced cousin Abigail Masham (Stone) arrives and pleas for refuge, she accepts and thinks nothing much of it.  The two women have a fairly innocuous relationship at first, but as soon as Abigail learns the court politics and gains the attention of Queen Anne, the hilarious (and occasionally terrifying) antics between the two women transcend “The Favourite” from an above-average dark comedy to a unique biography on two understated characters in British history and a fascinating character study on our obsessions with love, power and competition.

Every performance in “The Favourite” is superb, but the true standout of this masterful ensemble is Coleman with her portrayal of Queen Anne.  The real-life Queen Anne suffered from mental illness throughout her life, not helped by the multitude of her children who barely lived to infancy, and Coleman’s performance invokes a wide variety of emotions from her audience as she switches from horrifically capricious to outright sympathetic in such a way that perfectly encapsulates the real Queen Anne’s flawed life.  Never one to shy away from dark humor, Lanthimos injects some grim laughs in the admittedly absurd situations she finds herself in, but Queen Anne never feels like a comic relief character and a lot of that has to do with Coleman’s ability to ground her portrayal at all the right moments.  Nicholas Hoult chews up every scene he is in as the flamboyant and quick-tempered Harley, and many of “The Favourite’s” best laughs come from his snide remarks and idle threats.  Of course, Stone and Weisz are undeniably phenomenal in their respective lead roles and their chemistry as bitter rivals kept me constantly on-edge waiting for the powder keg that is their volatile feud to explode.

I cannot stress enough that the writing in “The Favourite” is utterly impeccable.  In an interview on Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast, director and co-writer Yorgos Lanthimos said he and fellow co-writer Tony McNamara had been working on this script for over 10 years.  Originally written by Deborah Davis, Yorgos stated the original script read more like a history, and it was his task to add a healthy dose of Black humor only he could pull off.  As a biography, the movie succeeds because the larger-than-life characters feel genuine and complex while the back-drop of a war with France that could bankrupt the country makes the seemingly trivial verbal battles done at court all the grander in their consequences.  As a dark comedy, the movie is flawless in its ability to create absurdly funny moments while also taking a deep and disturbing dive into the psyches of men and women who probably should not possess the power they so uncaringly wield.

Lanthimos is the most enigmatic director working in film today.  To call him the modern-day Stanley Kubrick would be a disservice to Lanthimos because his style is unique compared to every other filmmaker throughout the history of cinema.  Where as some arthouse filmmakers receive criticisms for being overly ostentatious and self-absorbed, there’s an underlying sense of genuine intention in all of Lanthimos’ work.  Every choice he makes in “The Favourite” feels like it was done for the betterment of the movie, and not as a means for the director to flaunt his own artistic eye.  Lanthimos is one of my favorite directors of all time, and probably the filmmaker whose movies I most look forward to seeing when he announces a new project.  His 2016 film “The Lobster” was my favorite film of that year and, despite having the highest of expectations for it, “The Favourite” left me astounded when the final credits rolled.  “The Favourite” is the best Lanthimos has to offer, which made it unequivocally the best film of 2018.

Matt Martella can be reached at [email protected]