WASHINGTON — Did you see “The Lobster” in 2016? Did you like it? Or despise it like I did?
Your answer to that question will shape your opinion of “The Favourite,” the latest by Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, whose international reputation precedes him, but whose signature style of absurdist black comedy I can now officially declare is not my cup of tea.
Set in 18th-century England, the film follows an ailing Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), who’s battling a crippling case of gout and thus decides to hand the reins to her closest confidant, Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Pretty soon, it becomes clear that Lady Sarah is also her secret lesbian lover, a palace tryst that spirals into jealousy upon the arrival of a new servant, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), who grabs more than the queen’s eye.
Don’t be surprised if Stone, Weisz and Colman earn Oscar nods for their trio of performances in a wicked love triangle. All three are awards darlings — Colman for “The Night Manager,” Stone for “La La Land” and Weisz for “The Constant Gardener” — and all three swing for the fences here, taking erotic chances while juggling dramatic envy with a comedy of manners.
The most showy role belongs to Colman, who authentically projects the physical limitations of her ailments, while revealing a burning desire for emotional contact beneath the surface. She earned Best Actress at the Venice International Film Festival, laying the groundwork for her to take over for Claire Foy as The Queen in the third and fourth seasons of Netflix’s “The Crown.”
As for Weisz, she is becoming a muse for Lanthimos, who left her waiting at a diner for Colin Farrell in the frustratingly ambiguous ending of “The Lobster.” In “The Favourite,” she is perhaps the most sympathetic of the three, managing a public war between Britain and France amid her own private war with Stone. Their rift is not sexual, but a means to power.
Which brings us to Stone, who is the equivalent of Eve Harrington’s scheming climber in “All About Eve” (1950), which I suppose makes Colman the bullheaded Margo Channing and Weisz the naive Karen Richards. In many ways, Stone has the heaviest lift as the only American of the three, requiring her to put on a believable British accent to deliver deadpan dialogue.
This often works to blunt the advances of the charming Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), who shows his affection by tripping her and pushing her over like a cooties-fearing schoolboy on the playground. When he eventually enters her bedroom, she asks if he is there to rape or woo her. “I’m a gentleman,” he insists, to which she nonchalantly replies, “OK, rape then.”
It’s supposed to be an absurdist #MeToo satire, co-written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara with sharp, naughty, intentionally anachronistically repartee. And yet, the tone is almost too cynical for its own good. Granted, “All About Eve” was every bit as cynical, but if you’re going to go the sardonic route, you better present it with satisfying structure and a wholeness to the tragic conclusion. Fasten your seat belt. You’re in for a bumpy ride here.
“The Favourite” is filled with dynamic camera moves and fish-eye lenses, causing the exquisite production design of lavish sets and period costumes to bulge off the screen. At first, it’s visually captivating, but after a while, it becomes needlessly distracting. One fish-eye lens is powerfully jarring (i.e. the peephole shot in “Rosemary’s Baby”), but doing it every other shot is headache-inducing at best and pretentious at worst. It’s a guy being weird for weird’s sake.
If you’re looking for a postmodern gem in the Merchant Ivory setting, I’d recommend Whit Stillman’s “Love & Friendship” (2016), starring Kate Beckinsale in a far more cohesive comedy of manners. It’s the type of movie where you admire the visual craft and the storytelling, as opposed to “The Favourite,” where you admire the visual craft more than the storytelling.
Great stories are reverse engineered, where the filmmaker already knows the ending and builds each moment toward the reveal. Lanthimos’ films often feel like fascinating concepts in Act One but with no idea how to wrap up Act Three, in this case languishing in erotic repetition that trails off into narrative nothingness, leaving us asking, “What’s the point?”
When we reach the final image of kaleidoscopic rabbits, symbolizing Queen Anne’s 17 doomed pregnancies, audiences will exit scratching their heads. Each year there’s an awards favorite that upon watching it, or in this case enduring it, reveals itself to be the worst kind of Oscar bait, the kind built solely for highbrow acclaim with outright disdain for the masses.
Among this year’s crop of supposed contenders, this one is not my “favourite.”
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