For better or worse, it difficult to think of a more singular voice in the film business over the last decade than Yorgos Lanthimos. From Dogtooth all the way through last year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, you could always tell a Lanthimos movie from its tendency to plumb the bizarre depths of the human psyche via the most deadpan acting possible. Presumably, the goal was to make the profane mundane, setting up the juxtaposition between extreme activities and the completely non-emotive people carrying them out. He’s written (well, co-written alongside Efthymis Filippou from Dogtooth forward) all of his films, developing a clear and consistent style. You may hate that style (and it would be tough to blame you for it; these movies are pretty darned weird), but you know what you’re getting into when seeing a Lanthimos movie.
So what the hell happens when he directs something he didn’t write?
That’s what we’ve gotten to find out with the release of The Favourite, directed by Lanthimos and written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. Set in England in the early 1700s during the reign of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), it follows Abigail (Emma Stone), the cousin of Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), trusted consort of the queen and de facto ruler of the land thanks to Anne’s failing health and general disinterest in her duties as monarch. Abigail, penniless after being sold by her father to settle gambling debts, has arrived to court seeking a job, and soon rankles Sarah by moving to replace her as the queen’s right hand woman. Sarah’s husband (Mark Gatiss) is away leading the Britons into war against France, and her weakened position creates a vulnerability to be exploited by Abigail and the Tory opposition leader (Nicholas Hoult) as the queen suffers from gout and seems barely capable of making a decision on her own.
The Favourite is very much a twisted image of the comedy of manners, taking the Marie Antoinette concept and pushing it as far into the grotesque as it could possibly go. Aristocratic societies are have always been an easy enough target for satire and ridicule, but we haven’t seen something quite like this. The denizens of Queen Anne’s court are more than happy wearing their silly wigs, eating until they vomit and shooting birds for fun. Anne keeps a herd of rabbits in her bedroom, each representing one of the seventeen children she has lost over her life. No one bats an eye at this, except when she demands they be pet accordingly on the anniversary of the death that they represent. The rabbits aren’t the only animals in court; one of the queen’s advisers is beaming proud of owning “the fastest duck in the city.” They dance and revel and discuss policy in such ways that never take into account the needs of their subjects, let alone the lowly scullery maids they employ; our only understanding of them as people comes from Abigail’s short cameo in their service prior to quickly moving up the social ladder and leaving them in forgotten dust.
Lanthimos has his knives out for the entirety of The Favourite, coolly and calmly eviscerating these idiots for garbage people that they are. It’s a farce, and a remarkably cruel one, constantly knocking them off their high horses (in some cases very literally) into the mud they are so intent to avoid. Stone and Weisz are meant to be the exception to the rule, the two people in the room who see the court as the political and relationship power game that it is, but even they are not immune to a waltz in the muck from time to time. But what they are able to do is emote like human beings, making for a marked departure from all of Lanthimos’ previous films.
The choice is a boon for all involved, with Stone wonderfully inhabiting the wolf in sheep’s clothing, batting her giant eyes and looking as innocent as possible when in public and casually stabbing people in the back when they turn their heads, assuming she’s as genuine as she looks. She isn’t. Weisz is an entirely different side of the coin, the long favorite of her beloved queen, but smart enough to know that she’s expendable if she doesn’t play her cards right. She’s extraordinarily ruthless, but knows she can’t show it in front of the Queen lest she jeopardize her spot and the security it affords her. And Colman sits between them, so far beyond anything that could be considered criticism or expectation that she’s morphed into something so far from humanity that she just exists as a pure distillation of id, prone to scream for everyone to stop whenever she gets too bored to enjoy whatever revelry is in front of her. All three are fantastic (though Fox Searchlight’s choice to push Colman as the lead when it is so obviously Stone is disingenuous at best), giving performances that are full of life and catty glee. All of the actors, including Hoult gloriously fopping around the place in between secretive tete-a-tetes attempting to undermine the monarchy, are pitched in complete opposition to everything else Lanthimos has done in his career.
It makes for a completely different sort of film, one that shares the depravity and cruelty we’ve seen in his previous work with a far more conventional mainstream appeal (if you can use the word ‘appeal’ in any real way when speaking of a Lanthimos project). In practice, then, The Favourite is a sort of stealth introduction to his particular brand of insanity, one that doesn’t have to worry about people being turned off by Colin Farrell talking like a robot. For those raised on the costume dramas of yesteryear (your Beckets, your The Lion in Winters, your Mary Queen of Scots, to use a current example) will find quite a bit of fun in how ruthlessly he subverts the genre, showing them how petty and pathetic and vindictive they truly can be. the Favourite is the antidote to all those movies they made you sit through in history class when your teacher was out sick (though those movies are probably better than you gave them credit for). It remains to be seen where Lanthimos goes from here, whether he picks up the pen again or returns to the monotone paths he once walked or continues to let his actors loose or some combination of all three. But one thing’s for sure: I thought I could count on what to expect from a Yorgos Lanthimos movie, but thanks to The Favourite, that’s not really the case anymore. And that makes for a pretty exciting future.