“I thought the ladies could take me to see The Favourite for my birthday.”
“Then I realized—”
“—the guy who did The Lobster.”
My mother claims that The Lobster is the worst movie she’s ever seen. I completely lack sympathy for her on this, because she didn’t ask me about it, and I could’ve told her she’d hate it without ever having to see it myself. Of course, The Boy and I did see that and loved it, but couldn’t think of many people we would recommend it to. Bonus: You get to say “YORGOS LANTHIMOS” when you talk about it, which just rolls off the tongue.
We were disappointed we missed the short-lived run of Lanthimos’ follow-up film Killing of a Sacred Deer. We were a little concerned we would miss this one, too, but the period piece has earned enough attention, perhaps for its subject matter and certainly its performances to make it good award bait.
And again, we wouldn’t recommend it to my mom, or to most anyone. Lanthimos has a clinical eye which is intriguing and (for us) effective, but it is not warm. It is devoid of romance and he seems to delight in deconstructing illusions.
In The Favourite, the disgraced Abigail (Emma Stone, Zombieland, La La Land) arrives at, uh, Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman, Hot Fuzz, The Lobster) place and is assigned to the kitchen by her disdainful cousin, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz, The Brothers Bloom, The Bourne Legacy). The disdain is not particular personal: Lady Sarah is a lady and hardly wishes to deal with the foul-smelling commoner whose father lost her in a game of whist. Abigail fares poorly in the kitchen, as the commoners have tremendous disdain for fallen ladies as well.
However, Abigail is not without resources, and when she learns that Queen Anne is suffering from gout, she risks a beating when she rides out to the woods to get some remedial herbs. She’s actually mid-beating, when Sarah sees that the herbs have helped and, grateful for the relief to the Queen, promotes Abigail to her personal maid.
I mention the “grateful” part because one thing one must do when watching a Lanthimos film is be very careful about sussing out what is actual sentiment and what is merely mercenary. But for all her bullying of the weak-minded queen, Sarah’s affection is genuine, and it also seems very clear that her bullying is done in the name of what she truly believes is best for England. This becomes an interesting point.
Abigail’s motivation is to never, ever end up in the muck again. And as the movie progresses, we are slowly moved from rooting for her to…well, something else. By the end of the movie, we’re questioning whether or not we ever really understood Abigail, of whether she’s changed as a result of her success.
Clouding the issue even further is whether or not the Queen is better or worse off. Anne and Sarah have a genuine relationship, with a sexual aspect that ultimately dooms them. Even beyond the sex, though, the relationship not an entirely healthy one. For all her care, Sarah is very opinionated and infantilizing in a lot of ways, leaving her cousin ill-prepared to handling the issues challenging England. Out from under her thumb, Anne’s competency grows, even if aspects of her happiness are dimmed.
It’s not really a crowd-pleaser. No way around it. But while we didn’t love it as much as The Lobster, we did really like it.
The performances are terrific. Colman will probably get an Oscar nom, Weisz gets more appealing (at least to me) with age, and Emma Stone manages to work her natural charisma to a kind of chilling end. We want to root for her, but it’s not that kind of story. In the end, she’s done some wrong—and unlike Sarah, her motivations are wholly selfish, with no regard for England—but you don’t despise her. At some level, one thinks, you’re supposed to pity her.
Bizarrely, this has a nomination for “best musical or comedy” Golden Globe.