The Favourite: A Palatable Version of the Lobster’s Thesis on Love

Image Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Image Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

By Grace Gay

Yorgos Lanthimos — perhaps the most notable eyebrowless director (no, seriously, go look up pictures of him) — has always had a certain preoccupation with love and power, specifically, how love is used as a weapon. The stylistic quick shots, preoccupation with animals and sudden moments of violence (often self-inflicted and with plenty of symbolic blood spatter) weave their way across Lanthimos’ ouvre, from The Lobster to his newest film, The Favourite.

The Favourite — nominated for ten Oscars, including Best Picture — is a much less jarring experience for audiences than much of Lanthimos’ other work. The film grants the audience a sturdier foundation from the not-so-true history of Queen Anne, which makes the often violent shifts and extremely hyperbolic moments in the movie somewhat less confusing, but all the more disturbing.

What the film lacks in historical accuracy it more than makes up for in titillating detail. The plot centers around two cousins — Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) — competing for the attention (and bed) of  Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Through all the backstabbing, dark comedy, and lesbian sex, the film deftly stradles the line between dark comedy and lavish commentary on power. The sparkling set design and costuming illustrate the wealth and grandeur of the characters, colors indicate shifting dynamics, and styles that slip in and out of traditionally masculine and feminine designs add a good deal of insight into the characters themselves. My particular favorite (or, favourite) is Rachel Weisz’s black and white, pirate-like riding apparel. In fact, all three main actresses shine in their respective roles, giving their all.

Emma Stone has never been a particular favorite of mine, but nonetheless this is perhaps her best work. Her acting style, which I’ve always found slightly too self-conscious and risk-averse, works for her role as Abigail. Abigail’s manipulation and lies seem at every moment to be carefully constructed and slightly improvised, a hard balance to strike for any actress, but this film shows how her craft has grown and matured over the years. And while her character arc is a bit unconvincing, this flaw is more a symptom of the story itself than it is a consequence of Stone’s acting. The writing seems uncertain about just how evil Abigail is meant to be, and as a result, goes all in at some moments and seems to pull back in others, trying to make her both sympathetic and terrible, but resulting in somewhat distracting inconsistencies.

The characters at the center of the drama are the most compelling part of the film, while also being the hardest to watch. “There wasn’t a single likeable character in the entire movie!” someone in my theatre bemoaned as they left. I’m inclined to disagree. The motivations and decisions, yes, are overall bad — these characters are bad people. But Olivia Colman absolutely shines in her role as Queen Anne. Her performance has a subtle and delicious physical comedy to it. Somehow, even in the quite timely portrayal of an emotional, unhinged and incompetent ruler, Colman manages to bring a humanity and depth to Queen Anne. In the process, Queen Anne gets an edge that makes her tragic in her naivety and power sickness. Her performance as an aged, spoiled, and petulant lesbian version of my Nana is masterful, and could not have been pulled off by any other actress.

The most striking thing in the star power of this film is how it makes an otherwise boring and pandering concept shine. Without the stars at the center, the scandal, lesbianism, and violence become little tricks to keep the audience’s attention on the screen when it starts to drift, but the dynamic between the main actresses manages to be captivating and intriguing, while still hinting at humanity beneath the surface. The Favourite is by far Lanthimos’ best work, but the most captivating aspect of the film is without a doubt the powerful performances by the women in it.

Steven Norwalk