Two of Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ most familiar hallmarks–stilted, robotic dialogue and emotionally detached violence–are largely absent in his latest film, the period thriller The Favourite. Gone along with them is the sense of surrealism that often looms over his most well-known works. While Dogtooth, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer employed all of these tactics, giving Lanthimos a love-it-or-hate-it auteurist sensibility, The Favourite manages to elevate his craft beyond a familiar bag of tricks and into something much more complex, funny, and satisfying without ever losing the director’s signature edge. This love (and hate) story is closer to Phantom Thread than it is to any of Lanthimos’ other films: subtle, yet still biting and whip-smart. Most important of all, it sees its character–especially the women–as people rather than props.
In the past, Lanthimos characters have often been people who do things, but rarely people who are anything. They’re so internal in their emotions and so absurd in their actions that above all else, they resemble metaphorical stand-ins performing theater of alienation. The couple in Killing of a Sacred Deer has stiff and strange sex to show that they’re stiff and strange people. In The Lobster, a couple bonds over their mutual myopia so we’ll know they’re desperate for companionship. These nearly-hollow characters are presumably intentional and often still impactful, but as written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara (this is Lanthimos’ first movie without a writing credit in over a decade) The Favourite is instead grounded by three realistic women with fully developed interiority. It isn’t that Lanthimos’ scripts were laced with misogyny, but rather that they purposely dealt in the bizarre surface level aspects of every character to cultivate the off-kilter vibe he’s known for. Freed from that detached structure, but complemented by his powerful direction, the results are stunning.
Moments that shock and memorably bizarre images abound in The Favourite, and every one of them contributes to a taut, gripping central dynamic between Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), Abigail (Emma Stone), and Sarah (Rachel Weisz). A nest of rabbits live as reminders of dead children; a woman dives from a carriage to avoid a predatory man; a feud is ended by a simple joke and a shared mud bath. Though its script is one of the best of the year, this movie also trades in the often unspoken language of women on the home-front, trying to thrive during a war in a world that would deem them either whores or ladies or nothing at all. They’re a triad of characters who put on dresses and sit in mesmerizing, gaudy castle rooms and play the role of court women like their lives depend on it: Sarah performs strength, Abigail performs confidence, and Anne performs authority–to varying degrees of success.
What could have been a simple wheel of fortune period piece becomes a story of the tangled web of friendship, love, hate, impulse, and power that develops among the three, and Lanthimos’ usual narrative distance is replaced by genuine intimacy. Moments of warmth develop, and though they’re often followed by unpleasant jolts–a knee to the groin, lye burning on skin, a foot pressed slowly into the back of an animal–the overall tone is not one of discomfort or unease (as is usually the case with Lanthimos’ work), but of deeply felt yearning. The camera doesn’t linger on violence and often doesn’t show it at all, opting instead to follow the faces and bodies which hunger. These women want. These women are.
Lanthimos’ luxurious direction, which employs gorgeous slow-motion, a mix of elegant string music and plain human background noises, and delicate character framing, makes the spotless script sing. So do the three actresses, of which only Stone is a newcomer to the director. All three imbue their roles as women who are often vicious with a hidden softness that makes them impossible to thoroughly hate. A single unadorned close-up shot of Olivia Colman’s face shows Queen Anne move through simple happiness to vacantness to unignorable despair. Her Majesty is an unforgettable character, an adult woman who is incapable of controlling any impulse or emotion, who loves her subjects but is scared to know them in case she discovers that they hate her. She’s preening, funny, demanding, babyish, and deeply self-conscious, yet she’s at her core a gentle spirit without the tenacity required for a successful ruler.
Sarah and Abigail are both more duplicitous than their queen, and their endless tete-a-tete takes up the majority of the film. Sarah gets a thrill from piling on verbal cruelties, while behind closed doors she pushes the war movement forward. Abigail hopes to gain favor to re-establish herself as a lady, though she’s quickly sidetracked by her desire to best Sarah. In another film with another script, these two would be unbearable, but their actions are informed by a world that’s been cruel to them too, and that context keeps them from becoming outright villains. “There’s always a price to pay,” Sarah tells Abigail when she learns her husband will be on the front lines of battle. “I guess all the rapes were the hardest,” Sarah tells Queen Anne in a brief sequence, and we see that she’s simultaneously shrugged off and internalized the violence done to her.
The Favourite is full of short scenes that draw the eye and, when pieced together into a larger portrait, cut deep. The film is Lanthimos at his most refined, playing to his strengths and allowing other talents to shine equally. Compared to the unreal inhabitants of his past works–and even standing on their own merits–these three women are a complete revelation.