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Nov 10, 2012

It's obvious that this man and I share the same destiny. Therefore I must join forces with him! Besides, I'll save on gas money if I take him with me.

The Favourite - dir. Yorgos Lanthimos / prod. Film4 Productions / dist. Fox Searchlight Pictures

Yorgos Lanthimos has made his style known since 2001 as a comedic director whose films are always rich with absurdity and darkness. His feature films have run the gambit of quirky dark comedy to intense dramas, but they usually center around a focused group of characters in the present or near future. Therefore his most recent film being a period-drama is a slight departure, but is no less perfectly matched to his style of directing and shows how well he works in any kind of setting.

The film centers around 3 women in 18th century England: Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), and Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), all of whom give a compelling show-stealing performance. Their relationship is a complicated one. Being in frail health, Queen Anne has an especially intimate friendship with Sara Churchill, who is not only her secret lover, but also uses the Queen to influence her decisions fueled by her own political pursuits. To the "comfort"' of these two comes the young Abigail Hill seeking employment. She uses the fact that she is the younger cousin of Sarah to her advantage and is immediately brought into the castle as a servant. Queen Anne pretty soon takes a liking to her, and starts showing preference her instead of Sarah. This of course aggravates Sarah, and the events of the film unfold between these three as Queen Anne tries to maintain what little sanity she has left while Sarah and Abigail have a battle of wits against each other to determine who is The Favourite of Queen Anne. (See what he did there?)

While these women absolutely control the show, this is not to say that the rest of the performances are any less perfect: Nichoulas Holt plays Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford, who is quite reasonably upset at Sarah for trying to influence the queen against his own political decisions. Joe Alwyn plays Samuel Masham, 1st Baron Masham, who is used as a means of persuading Abigail to be more in line with Harley's political ideals than Sarah's, but ultimately is used in a more advantageous way to Anne's ideas than Harley's. The more minor cast Mark Gatiss plays John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, who acts as a more compelling offscreen performance being Sarah's husband who acts as a lieson between what's happening at court and what's happening at the battle between England and France.

One of the most striking things about Lanthimos's films is how effectively he uses the characters performances to make the audience feel the tension between the characters. Through seemingly simple dialogue exchanges, you can tell just how sinister the plotting is against these characters. His use of music is very appropriate for the time, using pieces by Handel, Purcell, Bach, and Vivaldi among others; but in Lanthimos's trademark style, he also uses more contemporary styles of musique concrète, with works from Messiaen, Ferrari, and Meredith. This again adds to the tension by comparing more classical sounds with more dissonant music, perfectly matching the mood in every single scene. The settings are also quite well done. With Fiona Crumbie working on production design and Sandy Powell working on costume design, the early 18th century period is perfectly realized, and their work shows great compatibility with a director like Lanthimos. There are a few moments where there is dancing that is happening, and the characters do some dancing that is obviously quite anachronistic, which only serves to highlight the comedy and absurdity that suits the film so well. There are so many little details that create a world so perfectly synchronized with itself at all times that is truly absorbing from every angle.

If you like Lanthimos's other films you will find it another great installment in this promising trajectory of his career; if you like period pieces, you will find it faithful to time and setting with just enough oddities to keep you interested; if you like the actors and actresses, you will find their performances expertly realized and will marvel as they completely disappear into the characters they're depicting; and if you're just looking for a fun movie to see over the weekend, you will not be disappointed. I can't honestly think of someone who wouldn't enjoy this film. It is well acted, well directed, has a completely intriguing and unique story, with plenty of subtle absurd humor and plenty of not-so-subtle absurd humor that will leave you thinking on it long after you've finished watching it. Go see it as soon as you can, and you can expect to see it as a strong contender during awards season - if you care about that sort of thing.

My rating - 5/5


Jul 7, 2012

I thought this was a finely crafted film. Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz were just good, but Olivia Colman in particular absolutely killed it, there should be an Oscar nod for her. There were many little touches, although they varied in subtlety. I loved the ending in particular, which was very poignant and masterful in its use of the multiple-exposure effect and the ambient aspects of the score, a couple of my favorite (HAH!) things about it. There are two big issues with it.

The first is that this film has one trick, which it does really well, but it quickly becomes tiresome, it is the only thing it knows how to do, and it does it for the entire two hours. By the end, the cycle of predictably cutthroat antics, witty yet anachronistic dialogue, and self-conscious bawdiness becomes tedious. Did the guy jerking off in the carriage in front of her serve any purpose at all other than to demonstrate the film's edginess?

The other is the cinematography. Sometimes the compositions are wonderful, and I really liked how it dealt with the darkness of the nearly windowless spaces in a palace. But it otherwise comes across as artificial. Daytime scenes are almost always shot with characters next to huge windows. Nighttime scenes have the candlelight blown out, creating a Harry Potter-like effect. A good counterexample to this is Barry Lyndon – Kubrick wanted to capture the effect of what it is really like to huddle by candlelight in an 18th century mansion, so he retrofitted lenses used by NASA to image the dark side of the moon, employing the largest f-stop ever used in a film, to shoot the whole drat thing with natural light. I'm not saying Lanthimos needed to go that far, but it would have been nice if something were done to prevent it from coming across as a low-budget period drama in many scenes.


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