The Favourite does what traditional period pieces typically don’t do: mix black comedy with witty, flavorful drama to create a seamlessly perfect blend of humor and intensity. What’s even stronger than the writing, is the set design, direction, and cinematography; the latter is probably the best I’ve seen all year. Though, the most successful achievement of the film lies in the three leading performances from Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, and Olivia Colman.
The Favourite is set in 18th century England, where Queen Anne (Colman) is leading a war against the French. Abigail (Stone), a new maid, skirmishes with the Queen’s top adviser and friend, Lady Sarah (Weisz), over the Queen’s liking. With the political backdrop, there’s a sense of urgency embedded in the battle between Lady Sarah and Abigail. Each of them have different parliament members whispering in their ear, bidding on different strategies to defeat the French; Lady Sarah has a vested interest in the war, as her husband leads the commanding forces. Queen Anne desires to be at the center of attention, creating a fascinating dynamic with three textured characters who all have opposing goals.
The Queen’s estate becomes a character, in itself, thanks to neatly stylized cinematography from Robbie Ryan (American Honey). By shooting with a 35-millimeter fisheyed lens, the corners of the frame are noticeably round and provide a sense of scope to the classical, grand scenery of the Hatfield house where The Favourite was shot. The frames are deeply focused, and everything can be seen. Ryan enacts rapid whip-pans as a way to express fluidity and shape the level of momentum that builds in every scene. Sharp cuts are still used, but the movement of the camera enhances a certain level of immersion. It’s even more astonishing when considering the level of blocking that had to be molded around these motions.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) banned any artificial lighting on the set to create an effect of authenticity. The natural aesthetic further highlights the stunning costumes, which mainly consist of darker, more mute designs. The low-angle shots hint that these characters are of more importance than the audience. However, the angles of the camera are not as clean; often placing the character off-center to emphasize the oddity of their nature. Some shots focus tightly on a character for an uncomfortable amount of time. The Favourite relishes in the fact that each character has significant flaws in their personality but that doesn’t stop anyone from disliking them and that’s a testament to the strong writing.
An eerie, almost unsettling, orchestral score is interwoven under the flashy scenery. It’s the same few chords, that strike different emotions each time they are played. Sometimes used as cues for the audience to laugh, but sometimes used as a build-up to an intense moment. I’ve talked about it before with other films, but this is another one that fires on all cylinders. These pieces warrant viewership for delicate craft alone, regardless whether it is good or bad; this one happens to be the former. At a time when females are finally able to capture steady, powerful leading roles, The Favourite is a film you’ll want to see.
The theatre crowd I was with ate-up every bit of it. The dialogue was hilarious and, in one particular instance, I nearly spat out my drink. At one point I heard someone next to me say to their partner, “This is an odd movie isn’t it?” Because it is but it is aware of that fact and embraces the weird. The Favourite, best described by yours truly, is devilishly delightful; a theatre experience that you don’t want to miss heading into the new year. You’ll be tense, fidget to the edge of your seat, and then laugh.