Oscar Nominations 2019 – FILM REVIEW: The Favourite (2018)

Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Olivia Coleman), Best Supporting Actress (Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing.

Score: ★★★☆☆

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s third English language feature (after The Lobster & The Killing of a Sacred Deer) tells the tale of Queen Anne (who came to the throne in 1711) and her trusted advisor Sarah Churchill, The Duchess of Marlborough, and a down on her luck fallen on hard times Abigail Hill who moves up the lowly house staff ranks to the Queen’s chambermaid and beyond to surpass Churchill as the Queen’s ‘favourite’. If that all makes this period drama sound a little fusty then you would be wrong. Filmed in exquisite locations, with fantastic production design, costumes, cinematography and editing, what really sets The Favourite apart is it’s apparent lack of interest in historical detail and it’s fondness for sordid hidden society practices, gross-out moments, it’s portrait of self serving and slobbishly petulant behaviour and of course it’s love for the c-word. On the one hand it’s a witty, somewhat grim, cynical satire of the base desires of those entrenched in, and jostling for, power, as the dynamic between the three leads switches amongst the toddleresque and somewhat tragic figure of Olivia Coleman as Queen Anne, the dominating, manipulative, machiavellian Churchill, ably played by Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone as the initially naive servant girl turned opportunist Abigail Hill. The three women circle each other for dominance mostly with Weisz and Stone looking to become The Queen’s closest of  bosom buddies. It’s a film that attempts to skew the whole notion of a period drama as viewed in a slightly grotesque hall of mirrors distortion- sometimes literally, as fisheye lenses and strange camera pans create a bizzaro view of the 1700’s.  The script is littered with crudities and ideas that do not mesh with the era (even a bit of breakdancing occurs) in order to jolt us into a more sideways view of human nature, this is the aim more than it tries to deal with any kind of accurate retelling of history.

Emma Stone amongst some The Favourite’s excellent production design.

Occasionally the film’s satire feeds us something to chew on in terms of social, class, power or political truths and exposes the selfish nature that we all recognise in ourselves and is especially apparent in those who seek to reach the highest positions in our society. But, truth be told, for a film that sets its stall out as something of an arthouse flick, it’s all a little bit juvenile. Relying heavily on attitude rather than substance the film is really a bit of pure entertainment for those who pride themselves on liking their cinema a bit alternative. There is no great denouement reached other than to remind us what we already know. Self indulgence and the lust for power are dominant interests in our society, and the film essentially asks, to what end? Perhaps concluding those in power are amongst the most self indulgent among us because those looking to get closer to the top of our societal hierarchy are keen to indulge the whims of, (in this case) the monarchy to further their own pursuit of power, and this is within itself futile as you just end up serving this power all the more subserviently. But is this new information? It’s something we already know and is not brilliantly expressed in the film, for as much as this movie is an alternative bit of cinema (albeit less alternative than Lanthimos’s earlier works) this is essentially, a bit of a romp. A bit of fun for those who won’t find the latest Kevin Hart movie a laugh a minute. As such, the film is a bit light on substance and just derives most of its pleasure in watching these women battle each other for supremacy. While it’s true the film features three strong female leads (none of whom it should be said ever really hit a home run) it does also promote the old idea that all women are natural enemies of each other. Is this a sign that filmmaking is in need of not just more female leads as is the case here, but actually in need of more female directors (obviously this in itself is inherently true) who might not be so keen to present women as natural combatants, or is it a sign that women can be and often are just as self-destructively competitive as men when put in the same societal positions? Maybe this is part of the comment of the film.

Rachel Weisz with her Queen, Olivia Coleman.

Olivia Coleman has been given a lot of plaudits for her role as the queen, but one suspects this might be due to the nature of the role rather than the execution of it, although it’s a role truly made for her, and she does execute it well. However given the material she has to play with it’s no wonder she walks away with the film, outshining the comparatively dull roles that Weisz and Stone (made a bit duller by Stone’s ‘Hollywoodness’) are handed. I must take time to mention Nicholas Hoult in all of this. Experience has taught me that no matter how good a piece, Nicholas Hoult’s arrival on screen is more than capable of ruining a perfectly good film at a moments notice. I have yet to witness a film in which Hoult’s contribution was anything less than interminably nauseating, frankly I am absolutely dreading the upcoming biopic of Tolkien (yes Lord Of The Rings Tolkien) that stars Hoult as the Oxford don himself. However, I have to say, perhaps this is Hoult’s coming of age moment. He is easily one of the most memorable elements of the film as the leader of her majesty’s loyal opposition party The Whigs. Hoult doesn’t hit a wrong note and is thoroughly enjoyable throughout. That’s quite a turnaround.

Nicholas Hoult’s hilarious turn as the leader of the opposition, The Whigs.

Overall The Favourite is no more than a bit of fun that is occasionally funny but never more than mildly amusing. It’s mostly nice to look at (even when it’s a bit gross) with its natural lighting, great photography, locations and sets, and isn’t so twisted that it won’t have some sort of mass appeal. But in the end it’s quite an unremarkable film despite all its promise and positioning as an awards season favourite. Inevitably the chattering classes will embrace it wholeheartedly and it will be mostly rejected by the average cinemagoer as a bit odd. But in the end neither of them are right. The story of the film is really that it’s a bit too much for those who like your average Hollywood output and bit too little for anyone who is interested in substance and ideas. It’s sort of in the middle ground. It’s American Pie meets Barry Lyndon. A populist intellectual flick that is neither entirely populist or especially intellectual. To my mind it’s not a picture with lasting appeal, it’s throwaway pop culture for readers of The Guardian. The Favourite is not my favourite, but I am sure it will be the favourite of many others… temporarily.

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