Writer’s Note: I prematurely gave this film the title of making me laugh the hardest in the theater this year. I then watched Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse a few days later and that ended up taking the title of the film that made me laugh the hardest in the theater this year.
Yorgos Lanthimos is on a roll. There’s not much precedent for a Greek filmmaker to roll off three english-language films in a row, doing one a year, and become one of the most sought after and critically revered directors in their industry during that time. He first came to my attention with The Lobster in 2016, one of the most original films made this decade. Last year he doubled down on his uncomfortable brand of cinema with The Killing of a Sacred Deer, making one of the most striking films that year. He returns with yet another unforgettable work in The Favourite. Lanthimos is a filmmaker who loves to lampoon and blaspheme traditions and values, so it was perhaps only a matter of time until he turned his eye towards british royalty. In early 18th century England, two cousins – Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and newcomer Abigail (Emma Stone) – both vie for attention from and control over an increasingly unhinged Queen Anne (Olivia Colman).
There’s an exhilarating anarchy to how Lanthimos shoots this film, taking the traditional method of still shots and elegance in period pieces and tossing them out the window in favor of a method that openly proclaims it is shot on digital. He slaps on a fisheye lens for perhaps the longest percentage of screen time in a film that’s not also a skate video. It’s invigorating, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Director of Photography Robbie Ryan is a supremely underrated cinematographer, and completely embraces the mania of Lanthimos with quick whip-pans and obtuse dolly movements. The result is a completely fresh experience in a genre of tired methods.
What a liberating experience it must be for an actor to work with Lanthimos, he just lets them run free. In The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, he originally wrote the scripts in greek then had them translated into english, which results in this odd disconnect with how the actors recite the lines, almost like they’re reading from a pamphlet on how humans are supposed to interact. It’s electric and winning, creating an aesthetic that is both deeply uncomfortable and hilarious for how deeply uncomfortable it is. The script for The Favourite was always in english, but Lanthimos still finds a way to inject his signature style onto his performers by just letting them loose. No emotion is too loud, no line reading is too much. There are no limits, and it’s delightful. You’re essentially watching Olivia Colman (always criminally underrated), Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone just try to out-ham each other. They just seem so joyful to be doing this gaudy and stuffy dialogue with as much pizazz as they can. All three of them are just a blast to watch as they duel via dialogue from scene to scene. Nicholas Hoult, Mark Gatiss and Joe Alwyn are all having a great time being as giddy as possible.
My only complaint is that the film begins to drag in the third act as if they stopped having fun with it. They could have cut 10-15 minutes and not lost much. For what it’s worth though, The Favourite earns the coveted title of the hardest I laughed in a theater this year. The trio of actresses just commanded each scene so expertly, knowing just how to make me bust up. The final images are remarkable. I have no clue what I’m supposed to make of them, but I’m okay with that. I’m not sure Lanthimos is a filmmaker I want to fully understand. Lanthimos is a mad genius.