The Favourite (2019)

Favoured by the Oscar Critics or by the People?


In a previous review, I talked about Zhang Yimou as an example of a ‘to love or hate’ director, but the case of Giorgos Lanthimos speaks for it even more. This is the reason I decided to watch ‘The Favourite’ much later, until the ‘ruckus’ had subsided. I was interested to interpret the reactions to this film on the same level as experiencing the film itself. So, in the past few months, someone would read reviews for the film, ranging from dazzling praises, to passionate, almost ‘single-minded’ abhorrence on many levels and perspectives. Of course after the Oscar for best leading actress, most grumbling ceased. A fun of a situation but let me not wander far from the film itself.

This is the 18th century England during the reign of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), the last of the Stuarts, at the time when she breaks her relationship up with Duchess Sarah of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). This as a result of the extreme rivalry between Sarah and the fallen aristocrat Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) for the ‘apple of discord’, what else, but the Queen’s favour of course. At the same time a major influence is cast by the royal court and its machinations on the war against France as the background.

Lanthimos handles his wide-angle lens with the skill of a true auteur both thematically and dramatically, and managed to capture my interest. The palace being the ideal backdrop to unleash the discordant power struggle between the nobles and also between Abigail and Sarah for the Queen’s favor. On this purspective let us note a robust psychological set-up for the two opponents, which effectively defines narrative frames, as well as the tremendous energy in the interpretations of both Weisz and Stone. Treachery, deception and risks, followed by intense body language, give a dynamic rhythm, that in a traditionally slow and stylized cinematic genre, as is usually the case with period films, if anything, it offers a modern look.

The use of the lens may have alienated many, but I don’t believe that the actors’ endeavours have lost any expressiveness at all, as it was initially circulated. It is balanced without many tiring close-ups (which the image analysis of the tech of our times makes problematic) and even more serves to build this delightful atmosphere of nightmare at times, an encroaching feeling of imprisonment, that directors like Kubrick and Polanski introduced. This directive perception brings us closer to the protagonist, Queen Anna, whose predicament is highlighted by Colman’s splendidly hysterical and Oscar-worthy interpretation.

As is also the case with us, the viewers, Colman’s Queen Anna, is caught in the ‘eye of the tornado’, one of a political nature, caused by the conflicts in her court. Being totally inadequate in her heirloomed role, the governmental chessboard is set up by the corrupt aristocrats and a more capable Sarah, who is trying to rule in the Queen’s stead. This is when Abigail finds her chance to social ascent by filling the ‘hole’ left by Sarah in the Queen’s life and bed. Queen Anna’s heavily ordained way of life has lead her into a state of deep depression, due to loneliness, feet gout and seventeen unsuccessful deliveries. In retrospect, living in a society that people are trying to subtly exploit oneself, what differentiates us from the neurotic queen?

So, here’s psychological analysis and, at the same time, social commentary with explicit criticism against corrupt aristocrats and the powers that be. Surely with regard to the reputation of the previous scenarios of films by Lanthimos, everything is pretty straightforward by comparison. And at the same time he manages to communicate all this dark speculation on human nature, in such a vitriolic and light humor, that I really didn’t realize when the film rolled credits.

Public interpretations and tastes do vary. Not everything is for everyone, nor are most people willing to get rid of their cinematic routines. It is a shame, however, that a work of such artistry can be verbally downgraded on the basis of elements such as ‘dirty talk’ or lesbian erotic scenes. Such elements in drama have emerged since the dawn of the art and are all part of the humane need to take in experience of the world, be inspired by it and communicate it to others. And this is something that Lanthimos is doing quite well in my humble estimate.

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