When Dogtooth came out in 2009, it quietly discomfited most viewers. A combination of uncomfortable circumstances and bizarre sexual situations in a closed space of a private upper middle class home made for squirming-in-your-seat intrigue (with a harmless kitten in the role of killer cat). Either you like living in that space or not – and his next film Alps continued along those lines. Then, the bigger budget, English language debut with big name actors, The Lobster, pushed Lanthimos’ to the next level. Colin Farrell and other name stars are brought to a hotel and are given a choice to couple or be turned into animals. More money, more time, more crew than his previous films and the movie got noticed – mostly for the brilliant actors’ performances. The discomfort and weirdness was still too much for many. Nominations for an Oscar for the screenplay, for Colin Farrell from a scad of European films awards and a win for Olivia Colman as well – for a film no one seemed to have heard of.
Follow this by mixing Lanthimos’ sensibilities with a thriller and the popularity of his quirks waned for The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Despite having a great cast, it proved to not be a popular mix. Often the big budget, and producers trying to cash in on a director’s talents ruins just what it is that makes the director special.
With The Favourite, Lanthimos settles again in an enclosed one-site environment (with brief forays into the forest) inside the famous Hatfield House – a popular set for hundreds of movies, chosen for the early 17th century appropriateness.
Inspired by the classic story in the film All About Eve from 1950, where a young starstruck actress slinks her way into the world of the theater star (starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter), Lanthimos wanted to put the story in a historical setting and chose the court of Queen Anne (1665 – 1714) – an ineffectual British monarch played by Olivia Colman. Add to the story the women who were really around her in the early 18th century – Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Hill, Churchill‘s cousin (Emma Stone).
Whether or not there is historical accuracy, the constellation offered the triangle of women, and a man or two around them for the writer/director to create a spiderweb of lies and competition between all the characters as they try to garner the favor of the queen. There is just enough political intrigue from the era to give the story substance. They involve themselves in some of the political wrangling between the Tories and the Whigs – Queen Anne was notoriously uninformed about what was happening in the empire. The film makes her confidante Sarah the astute politician and Abigail the superficial conniving character trying to create a secure life for herself after the ruin of her family by a gambling father. The women ingratiate and indulge the queen vying for her favor – to be the “favourite”.
The quality of the language in the screenplay is regularly heightened by the ownership the director gives the actors to perform – they rehearsed for three weeks doing extensive theater games, playing with the texts in a variety of physical exercises before they costumed up and and started filming. The costumes are kept in a black and white palette, except for anachronistic details of servants wearing denim fabric clothes. Sandy Powell is the costume designer who has risen from being British filmmaker Derek Jarman‘s costumer (first films with Tilda Swinton, such as Caravaggio) and now is on track to become third most Oscar swinging costumer in the business. One precious detail that warms the heart of this material culture art historian are the teacups. The Chinese porcelain used with no handle and deep saucers is accurate – as it would be another 10 years before Meissen figured out the recipe for what became European porcelain. The historical precision, with the anachronistic language and contemporary 21st century court dancing and cute bunny rabbits create a melange of style and sensual delights throughout the film. Add biting text, with brilliant performers (even Emma Stone’s accent is passable) great direction and this movie is worth seeing even if you hate costume drama.
The discomfit from the earlier films is transformed to dark humor and hubris which delights rather than unsettles – and like a touch of cayenne in that dish, just the right dose of quirkiness. All the parts together makes this movie one of the best of the year. One of the lines from the inspirational original All About Eve, spoken by Bette Davis fits perfectly before watching this film – “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”