Yorgos Lanthimos‘ ‘The Favorite’ is up for something like ten Oscar nominations this year and I hope it wins Best Picture. All three of its capable actresses (the picture’s main characters are women) are also up for Oscars, although I don’t really understand why Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz are slotted into the Best Supporting Actress category while Olivia Colman is vying for Best Actress. Colman is a great actor who I first noticed in Ricky Gervais’ The Office. She also played a part in Lanthimos’ film The Lobster which drew a lot of attention for its quirky premise. This nomination should bring her some deserved attention but it’s really Stone and Weisz’s rivalry which drives the force of this film’s plot.
Set in the early 1700’s, in England, Colman plays Queen Anne, advanced in age and possessing dubious mental faculties. Weisz plays Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, a wealthy noble who uses her status as the queen’s favourite to exert influence and power over the country. Stone plays Abigail Hill, Churchill’s younger, destitute cousin who arrives and throws herself upon the mercy and generosity of Weisz. There’s very little of this to be had. Through the film, Stone works her way up from scullery maid into the graces of Weisz, and then Colman, before everything goes twisted and cutthroat. It’s a period piece and the various jealousies, rivalries, and revenges of the three formidable actresses drive the film, though it is an atypical period piece.
The scenery and costumes have a period feel (I’m still wondering if the guns that Weisz and Stone fire during bouts of target practice are quite accurate) but Lanthimos’ odd sensibility pervades the film. As with his previous film The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos uses extremely wide angled shots (in this particular film, he uses fish eye lenses that make some of the long tracking shots look almost like security footage) to give the film an odd feel. The performances and scenes, though not written by Lanthimos, are marked by his acerbic satire. The actors are sharp, mean, and funny. There’s a dance number in the middle which begins with the sort of courtly ordered movements you might expect and then transforms into something completely unexpected and hilarious. The characters are based on real life historical persons, but they act in a fairly anachronistic way. There seems to be no explanation required or given for Stone’s lone American accent, and even the spelling of the title (‘Favorite’ as opposed to ‘Favourite’) suggests a break from the British provenance of the film’s subject matter.
The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and now The Favorite make a trio of odd films that are hard to classify. They mix humour with drama (well, Sacred Deer is not really humourous); they are not light or forgettable films. They deal with characters in the throes of difficult situations – and odd situations at that. Lanthimos presents a view of the world that is not friendly, easy, or familiar. His characters are not easy to like and his films are misanthropic. It’s hard to say what his influences or what the intentions of his films are except that he wants you to experience them. There is a sort of similarity to the films of Michael Haneke but Haneke’s films aren’t ever so satirical or funny. Kubrick in the era of Lolita or Dr. Strangelove (or maybe Barry Lyndon, given the period subject matter) might be a better comparison, except that Lanthimos doesn’t really ever reach for that director’s fidelity when it comes to research or historical background.
What is evident is that Lanthimos is making a name for himself in a short amount of time, cultivating a unique body of work and style that might break him through to the fore ranks this Oscar season. He wouldn’t be the first offbeat director to break through unexpectedly (think of the Coen Brothers and their Oscar wins with Fargo) and it’s always an interesting phenomenon to observe. Heaven knows, Hollywood could use a vital and creative shot in the arm.