Sunday, December 9, 2018

'The Favourite' Review: An Exceptional Period Piece That Lacks Edge

The Favourite was one of my most anticipated films of the year. So far in his career, director Yorgos Lanthimos has done nothing but impress; his deranged and surreal works The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer were so bizarre and original that I couldn't help but fall for them. With the all-star lineup of acting talent on display in The Favourite, it seemed apparent that this would be his best yet. And while The Favourite is quite good, I can't help but feel that it lacks the edge that make his previous films so special.

The Favourite is a largely fictional period piece dramedy that takes place in a version of Britain. Immensely ill due to gout, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is not especially interested in the day-to-day running of her kingdom. Largely, she leaves most decisions of import to her most trusted adviser Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Sarah, at seemingly every opportunity, uses this to her advantage by pushing forward her own agenda, and the agendas of those most close to her.

Things are turned upside down when Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah's less fortunate younger cousin, makes her way to the kingdom. Gambled away by her father, and having escaped abuse, she has come to ask her cousin for employment. She is granted a menial job, which ultimately sends her down a path to seeking the favor of Queen Anne herself.

The film is a stunning thing to look at. The production design of the thing is unmatched this year. The design of the castle and the court are incredibly dense and lavish, over the top even, but still find a way to feel authentic. Lanthimos continues his trend of shooting in natural light in The Favourite. Some scenes are lit only by candlelight, leaving the pale-skinned Stone and Weisz to seemingly sway and float down dim stone hallways like ghosts. Scenes shot near enormous, lavish windows let in enough light to bring out stark details, and make the ugliness on display in certain scenes all the more apparent.

Lanthimos also employs a mostly static camera, choosing to make the rare movements very simple and deliberate. When a scene begins with someone entering a room and addressing someone on the other side of that room, the camera will simply spin slowly in place to reveal the full breadth of the scene. In fact, the camera seems to largely exist in the center of scenes, cutting around conservatively to show things and people of import. It isn't a film that has a particularly showman-like edit, but I think that is to its credit.

The dialogue in the film crackles like electricity. Every character exists on a level playing field of fiery wit, one person often speaking their reply over the final words of another person's statement. It is reminiscent of Rian Johnson films, particularly Brick, where dialogue is used stylistically just as much as it is used for exposition.

All three actresses at the front of this film are operating at their highest levels. Olivia Colman, a renown British television actor, is doing the best work of her career here. She treads a fine line between being cartoonishly comical and believably at her wit's end, and the end result is perhaps the best performance of the year. Rachel Weisz brings all of her caustic wit and steely glares to bare, but in Sarah's more tender moments she brings a vulnerability that I don't think we get to see often enough from Weisz. Emma Stone is getting the opportunity in The Favourite to play against type. She is not the fun and whimsical sort of character she is often typecast as. If anything, Stone is largely the villain of the film. This is the most hardened performance we've yet to see from her, and it is a credit to her talent that it works so well.

All that being said, this still might be my least favorite (no pun intended) of Lanthimos's films. It is the first film he has directed that he hasn't also written, and I think that it might suffer for it. The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Dear both exist in a bizarre dream reality, introducing outlandish concepts without over-explanation. The Favourite, for all its stylistic flourishes, is soundly grounded in reality. It is certainly his most palatable film, and I think general audiences will think it whimsical without finding it off-putting. But I've come to know Lanthimos for making me squirm is my seat, for making me chuckle with joyous unease. And to my disappointment, I just didn't find that here.

That is less a mindful critique, and more of a personal hang-up, though. I still firmly believe that this is one of the most impressive films of the year. I think it is the film to beat for acting awards in the coming months, and even has a shot at Best Picture. It is a phenomenal film, but perhaps just not an exceptional Yorgos Lanthimos film.

I give The Favourite a 4 out of 5.