Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Favourite (2018) Is Capable of Much Pleasantness

The Favourite movie review
With some directors, you never know what you’re going to get. As familiar as you may be with their past projects, they always manage to create something within their own style and also completely off the beaten track. Director Yorgos Lanthimos is easily one of those type of directors today. Every film he produces from The Lobster and The Killing of A Sacred Deer, Lanthimos stand out from even his own work. This is easily the biggest, perhaps the best way, to describe his latest film The Favourite.

Set in early 18th century, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) has become set in her ways with her loving yet tumultuous relationship to Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). And then her cousin Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) arrives on their castle's doorstep and finds an opportunity to make a name for herself. The two vie for the attention of the Queen and security for themselves as Britain braces itself in a war against France.

When we think of period films, there are plenty that fall into the typical historical romance or drama. The genre itself is almost predictable because almost all of them don't dare to color outside of the same storytelling lines: big wars created and settled by men, or a woman in an arranged marriage having a love affair that society/her family rejects. Unlike Joe Wright’s formulaic “romance” in The Duchess, or even the slightly unconventional biopic of Marie Antoinette by director Sofia Coppolla, or any film we can name off the top of our heads, The Favourite is not like any of the historical films we’re used to. No, The Favourite is everything we didn’t think a film from the picturesque brooding genre could be and then-some.

Taking place behind-the-political doors of Queen Anne’s bedroom, or ‘war’ room, the film centers on the ruthless love triangle between three women. Sarah’s power-hungry and resilient, and you never quite know what is up her sleeve. Anne’s been crippled by her own mental and physical health, and a past of traumatic events, but secretly knows how to play the game just as well as her mistresses. Abigail’s got the street smarts to get ahead, but not necessarily the tact to survive even the worst traps she ensnares others in. Gone are the romantic stories of two lovebirds wooing each other with grand promises as they quarrel against pride or prejudice to live happily ever after. And in swoops a chess game between women where you never know who is the real queen or pawn. Their motivations vary from love of power, security, validation, and real love, and their moves are so subtle, you never know who has truly won or lost their battle of wits and dominance.

As is expected from Lanthimos’s work, The Favourite is not simplistic at all. The performances, for one, by Weisz, Colman and Stone are incredible. Any first impression you have of their characters in the beginning is challenged and changes over time; they’re as cold as they’re loving; vulnerable and strong; in control and powerless; vicious and soft. As a trio and individually, they are a tour-de-force and nicely complimented by the supporting roles by Nicholas Hault, Joe Alwyn, and James Smith.

And, then there’s just the entire process of how the film looks and feels. The Favourite fits what you expect of the historical genre with the production design – gorgeous costumes by historical-drama-goddess Sandra Powell, a lively and unsettling classical soundtrack, and the beautiful countryside-picturesque setting. And yet, the unconventional storytelling by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara is so unique, it can only be matched by Lanthimos's vision, one that is a kaleidoscope of small portraits blurring and mingling together into something grander and complex than you ever expected.

Lanthimos’s style, or how I can describe it at least, is one that lingers in a hypnotizing, awkward, and enchanting way. His stories aren’t in a rush as the characters venture from one maneuver to another; sometimes there's a great build-up to certain twists or revelations only for you to realize the next cat-and-mouse game you were waiting for has come and gone. He’ll juxtapose scenes in a strange and dizzying montage with steadying the camera on a character so long the scene can become unnerving, boring, confusing, or captivating. There's a lot going on in his films and yet nothing at all; so many moving pieces that blend together seamlessly, it's difficult to distinguish what makes him different except that his work just is.

Despite the film's out-of-the-box approach in creating complex female characters, its marketing or hype about a lesbian love story left me confused. Some critics have been calling The Favourite as All About Eve (a 1950 film starring Bette Davis where an attention-obsessed ingenue tries to steal the spotlight from a veteran actress) on crack, and to an extent, the storytelling comparisons are true. However, many of the hot-takes about Sarah, Anne and Abigail has become way more simplified to 'oh wow lesbians in the 18th century?!' clickbait. Not only do the characters come across as bisexual or asexual more than purely sapphic (if we're just going to label everything), primarily because of their adjacent relationships with men, but also because power is such a big underlying current to their manipulation of each other, it makes me wonder if it was taken out of the equation would the women be attracted to each other at all. While there are moments of intimacy between Sarah and Anne, those are outmatched by manipulation through sex, almost to the point where some acts aren't consensual and leaves the film a little cold, or at the very least, makes the characters deeply morally ambiguous. The film's take on sexuality and reversing gender stereotypes is refreshing compared to most films in general. However, there was a slight misdirection to me about what the film is/isn't trying to be versus what it actually is.

Like a lot of films that gain hype for award shows, The Favourite is a literal favorite the 2018 season. And, in many ways I agree - the cast, the writing, the production design, the very timely story of complex relationships between women are all top notch. More than just hearing about the women who make the men or the women behind the accomplishments the men get credit for, it's high time that we're getting more films about the women behind other women or are out to get their own. There are performances here that show different sides to the actresses who continually outdo their last project. In a time where Hollywood is vying for more films to break-out of the stereotypical norms and directed by women, it’s easily refreshing that something so delightful, absurd, dark, and twisted could come out of the mind of someone like Yorgos Lanthimos.

Rating: ★★
Have you seen The Favourite? What did you think?

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