Snide and Petulance

Nick Pinkerton on Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite (2018)

Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite, 2018, 35 mm, color, sound, 119 minutes.

THE FAVOURITE MAY BE MARKED AS A DEPARTURE for director Yorgos Lanthimos, but his recent work, unusual among his that of his peers in a film festival circuit that often rewards familiarity, has comprised a series of such departures, this following an English-language debut with The Lobster (2015) and an American excursion in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). Now we have Lanthimos’s first period film, set at the beginning of the eighteenth century during the reign of Queen Anne, though it’s a particularly irreverent and tawdry approach to the hallowed tradition of the English heritage film, with four-letter words and fish-eye shots abounding. (Taking the piss at the expense of the monarchy, the Greek director, you might suspect, is getting revenge for the Elgin Marbles.) The Favourite is also the first film since 2001’s My Best Friend for which he has a director credit but no writing credit—those duties go to Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis, who first drafted a script back in 1998 about the turbulent triangle between Anne and her consorts Sarah and Abigail.

What has remained the same in Lanthimos’s cinema through the climbing budgets and international pond-hopping is an attraction to plot premises that have an aspect of a game about them, with specifically described rules that the characters must—often uncomfortably—negotiate. In The Lobster, it’s a race against the clock to find a viable mate; in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, it’s a curse demanding a blood sacrifice that finally leads exasperated patriarch Colin Farrell to play blindman’s buff with a loaded rifle. In The Favourite, the rules of the game—with apologies to Jean Renoir, an artist possessed of a warmth that no one has ever accused Lanthimos of emitting—concern the negotiation of court protocol in order to achieve influence, with Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) vying to secure a place in the boudoir of Olivia Colman’s Anne, whose alleged lesbian romance with Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, was also the subject of playwright Helen Edmundson’s 2015 production Queen Anne. (As in Peter Strickland’s 2014 lesbian S and M comedy The Duke of Burgundy, the sex is offscreen and inferred, a decision that is perhaps meant to avoid the appearance of leering exploitation by straight male directors but instead seems oddly prim.)

Davis’s version of events, drawn from the autobiography of Sarah’s celebrated descendant Winston Churchill, among other sources, telescopes into what registers on-screen as a fairly brief timeline of the historical happenings between 1704 and 1711. This was the period during which Hill, an impoverished cousin of the duchess’s, arrived at court and, after appealing to Churchill’s family to obtain a lowly position, gradually supplanted her cousin’s privileged place in the affections of the queen. Stone’s Abigail first pathetically presents herself at the royal countryside dwelling—most of the principal photography was done at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire—looking a fright, caked head to toe in shit and mud after tumbling from a carriage to escape an amorous fellow passenger. Raised as a lady but now fallen far below the station of her birth, she at first accepts with humble gratitude her well-off cousin’s consigning her to the duties of a scullery maid, though in time she ingratiates herself first to the duchess and then to the Sapphically inclined queen. As she does so, Abigail becomes a mouthpiece for the opposition Tories, looking to check the Whiggish duchess, and is cultivated for this job by Robert Harley, First Earl of Oxford (Nicholas Hoult), who sees in her a real comer with a remarkable learning curve in the art of skulduggery. A quick study, Abigail absorbs the barbs of her well-placed cousin, biding her time before openly venturing insult, “accidentally” spattering Sarah with a pigeon’s viscera during some leisurely target shooting. For someone to rise in this world, someone else must inevitably wind up with splat on their face.

Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite, 2018, 35 mm, color, sound, 119 minutes.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Venice, centered on a performance by ingenue-cum-superstar Stone, and currently enjoying a big publicity push by distributor Fox Searchlight, The Favourite gives every indication of promising critical and popular success, a long leap in Lanthimos’s journey from niche art-house notoriety to connecting with a broader audience—a journey that I, for one, wouldn’t have pegged the author of a film as difficult in style and subject matter as Dogtooth (2009) to be poised for. In making it, it cannot be said that Lanthimos has, to date, made much in the way of concessions to sentimental tastes or matters of likability and pictorial prettification—The Killing of a Sacred Deer, for example, is a glum, draggy death trip. And while The Favourite has all the trimmings of a richly appointed costume drama extravaganza, what one remembers afterward are the cold, cavernous, under-decorated interiors and mortician’s waxy flesh tones. Working previously with cowriter Efthymis Filippou, Lanthimos had developed an idiosyncratic style of dialogue and delivery that presented to the viewer a tough take-it-or-leave-it proposition. I’ve heard that the Greek of such Lanthimos/Filippou collaborations as Dogtooth and Alps (2012) registers as strangely formal to a native speaker, but this aspect of their work only really registered to these ears with The Lobster, in which characters address one another with unblinking candor and an affectless cadence that gives line readings something of the air of a text-to-speech program.

Both Weisz and Colman first worked with Lanthimos on The Lobster, and he has lined up plum parts for the actors in this new work of sexual and political intrigue, which places backroom female power-brokering front and center. Men, seen largely as frivolous and pleasure-loving fops caught up in indoor duck racing and other ignoble sports, are almost an afterthought in The Favourite, and the movie has some fun contrasting the bright frippery of men’s finery of the era with the relatively sober attire of the women. Wearing a drag king getup consisting of a gray knee-length coat and breeches, Weisz cuts a more stern and imperious figure than any man in the picture, not to speak of the often supine queen, perpetually bellyaching in both senses of the word. Colman is becoming an old hand at playing British royalty, with a run as Elizabeth II in the Netflix historical drama The Crown and a turn as Elizabeth I in Hyde Park on Hudson (2012), but what she gives us here is a monarch as an overgrown, tantrum-prone toddler, a temperamental, sullen creature for whom the governing of an empire is a bother to be shunted onto others’ shoulders whenever possible, as she is far more preoccupied with her gout flare-ups than the tiresome War of the Spanish Succession.

Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite, 2018, 35 mm, color, sound, 119 minutes.

Colman is a tremendous comedian––her ability to plumb the depths of abjection already proved in her greatest role, the increasingly unstable Sophie in the long-running sitcom Peep Show (2003–15). Where The Lobster felt like a faithful translation of Lanthimos’s deadpan style—a broadly comic and brutally bleak absurdism recalling, at times, the acidity of Bertrand Blier—into a foreign tongue, The Favourite lands nearer to the UK tradition of farce as represented by Peep Show. A more precise comparison might be the vicious, often splenetic, put-down comedy that has been the stock-in-trade of Armando Iannucci, particularly in the various bloodbaths of verbal garroting he produced following the success of his The Thick of It (2005–12). The epithets fly fast and free in The Favourite, with cunt in particular given an exhaustive workout. And, as anachronistic period comedies go, Lanthimos’s film shows considerably more in the way of cinematic construction than Iannucci’s execrable, out-of-depth The Death of Stalin or Jeff Baena’s dirty Decameron burlesque, The Little Hours (both 2017).

In the company of Lanthimos’s own work, The Favourite certainly “plays” better than the suburb-transposed tragedy in The Killing of a Sacred Deer—but it is less compelling in its successes than the latter film is in its failures. Lanthimos’s body of work to this point isn’t made up of an uninterrupted string of masterworks, but he’s proved himself an engrossingly aggravating talent, an itch it’s a pleasure to scratch, worth following if for no other reason than his willingness to experiment with performance, to lead his actors away from the theatrical-naturalistic polarity on which the great majority of screen performances can be located, and into terra incognita. The Favourite is, recognizably, a well-acted movie, full of briskly bitchy backbiting, but the films that preceded it created a performance style that asks viewers to reconsider their existing criteria of good and bad.

The competition between Sarah and Abigail to win the queen boils down to two contrasting styles of courtship: Sarah’s honest but sometimes savage tough love, and Abigail’s insincere, calculated obsequiousness. In finally preferring the latter, Anne will doom all three—a moral that gains inadvertent pathos, coming as it does at the end of Lanthimos’s most pandering film, a work in which his eccentricity seems, for the first time, studied. He has been exasperating before, but exasperation is a price worth paying for dealing with certain talents. It is harder to know what to do with a Lanthimos that is merely able and entertainingly acrid—I only hope not to see the likes of him again.

The Favourite opens in theaters on November 23.