As with most things historic, dramatizing the British monarchy can be approached in various different ways: As a tragedy (the recent Mary Queen of Scots); political donnybrook (The Queen); pointed societal drama (The King's Speech); or riotous comedy (Monty Python and the Holy Grail), to name but a few. What Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos has done with The Favourite, however, is an amalgamation of all of those forms. In wedding it to his eccentric sensibilities, the film is equal parts tragedy, commentary and comedy, all while making technical choices -- a healthy use of wide angle lenses, say -- that infuse the project with his particular vision.
Those wide angles, also favored by another winsome and fastidiously unique director by the name of Kubrick, offer the perfect Lanthimos effect: gorgeous cinematography, coupled with a jarringly modern camera effect that feels about as peculiar a juxtaposition as watching the spray paint tagging of one of the famous rocks at Stonehenge.
These sorts of risks are nothing new for the director. Lanthimos' back catalog is rife with such odd pairings and bizarre convictions -- The Lobster, a film about a society in which single people past a certain age are turned into animals of their choice and let loose in the wild, is equal parts tragedy and offbeat comedy. Even when his eccentrisms don't quite find a foothold, as with last year's The Killing of a Sacred Deer, you can't deny the appeal of a filmmaker willing to challenge your sensibilities to that degree. It's high-risk; high-reward work.
His new film, The Favourite, tells the historically ambiguous story of Queen Anne (played unflinchingly by Olivia Colman, who is marvelous), a slightly deranged monarch who reigned in early 18th-century England. Frail and prone to brutally childish behaviors, Anne sequesters herself away with her top adviser, a fetching woman named Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who seems to have the queen's ear, as well as her heart.
Entering into this scenario is Abigail (Emma Stone), a distant cousin of Sarah's, and a young woman with a fierce understanding of social climbing. Quickly endearing herself to the queen, Abigail attempts to oust her cousin as the queen's main consort, wielding the power of the throne from behind the scenes, but Sarah does not go quietly, setting off a rousing power struggle between the two women.
The result is upsetting and more than occasionally hilarious, an effect Lanthimos is all too happy to provide. "I think humor in general is something that I can't get away from no matter what the material is," the director explained during a news conference at the New York Film Festival, where his film had just played before a mostly rapturous critical audience.
Broad shouldered, with a close-cropped beard, and dressed in a blazer over a black T-shirt, and white, sockless shoes, Lanthimos comes across a bit like the executive from a advertising agency draped in casual wear, although his appearance belies the churning, powerful creativity of his subconscious we routinely see in his films.
At first, it might seem like an odd choice for the director, like David Lynch making a courtroom drama, but one can quickly ascertain what interested him. "It was a story about these three women [whom] at a particular point in time had this kind of power, but also their characters and their personalities and how that affected a whole country, or the fate of thousands, of millions of people."
The fact that Queen Anne herself was such an odd bird (based on many of the other films made about the British royals, she was far from alone in this regard), allowed Lanthimos to take a different tack: Instead of creating a world from whole cloth in which such odd people control things, he could simply re-create the strangeness of the human condition already on display in the history books. It offers a bit of a meta-bite as well: The title refers not only to Queen Anne's chosen consort, but also the "favorite" of the audience at a given time, a point co-screenwriter Tony McNamara alluded to. "'Favorite' is a sort of malleable thing," he explained. "It's a whim that comes and goes. So the idea of all these people being subject to trying to be in favor, and even Anne trying to find someone to choose the favorite of, just seemed an interesting dynamic to us."
As for the aforementioned penchant for fish-eye lenses, unsurprisingly, Lanthimos had a very distinct reason for those shots. "[They] visually represented a lot of themes of the film," he said. "The lone human figures within those huge spaces, the fact that so few people affect a much vaster world. The fact that although the spaces are huge, they were kind of distorted and felt quite claustrophobic at the same time." By making some of his thematic cues strictly visual, even if jarring, it affects his audience more subliminally, a trick of which Stanley Kubrick had utter mastery. On that point, there can be little doubt of the director's homage, but Lanthimos had another artistic inspiration for those shots. "I remembered those Dutch paintings ... dated in the earlier centuries that had those convex mirrors painted and you could see the whole space reflected, distorted in those mirrors. So it also felt appropriately period in a way."
Those might be the most notably jarring prochronisms in the film, but they aren't the only example of the director's mix-matching time periods: In one of the more hilarious scenes, Weisz's character Sarah peels off from Anne at a formal ball and begins to dance with a male supplicant as if laying it out to a Childish Gambino track at her cousin's wedding reception in Secaucus. It was another "intentionally contemporary" element that Lanthimos delighted in populating the film with, along with the "physicality general of the characters," and making the language mainly modern. By adding these jarring textures to the film, he was able to make this bit of history more hewn to his own vision.
As you can imagine, this process didn't lead to making a picture whose primary concern was historical accuracy. As he explained it, he and his production staff made a very conscious decision to add these elements as a way of further pushing against the idea of textbook-like authority. "We took [history] as a starting point," he said, "and then we were interested in creating this particular world and this story around these three women and not be necessarily loyal to the specific event or the specific politics of the time. We tried to actually simplify that part of it, focusing more on the characters and through them, understand in a way that is relevant to any period, how people in such positions can actually affect very important events in history."
On stage, Lanthimos held a last pause for a beat before adding a final, fitting piece of comedic understatement: "And then we veered off in many different directions from there."
MovieStyle on 12/21/2018
Print Headline: Is Favourite director channeling Kubrick?