Lauren Miller ‘22 / Emertainment Monthly Web Editor
The best war movies are not about a simple battle between good and evil. The lines are not clear cut, the loyalties are not obvious, and victory, even when it’s expected, is not without cost. Indeed, the best war movies aren’t about the battle against an enemy at all, but rather the internal battle soldiers and generals wage for survival. The battle to overcome great horror and violence and adversity, with some semblance of yourself still intact.
And make no mistake: Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is a war movie. When we first meet Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), the England they rule over is at war with France. But the battle central to the film is not over territory or the lives of young soldiers, the battle is between Lady Sarah and her cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) for the favor of Queen Anne. Each woman has an ambition and an agenda all her own, with her own ways of achieving it. Like they say, all’s fair in love and war.
All the technical elements of The Favourite are practically perfect. Lanthimos and director of photography Robbie Ryan manipulate the camera like it’s a well-dressed dance partner in one of the film’s ball sequences, using unexpected camera movements and distorted lenses to bring out the ridiculousness of their material. This can, at times, be distracting and disorienting, but it’s only ever in service of the larger themes.
The design – sets and costumes and make-up and props and hair – is so stunning that there are whole scenes where I’d stare only at the details on Queen Anne’s bed or the tight curls in Abigail’s updo. Truly, you can watch The Favourite with no sound, looking only at the background pieces of the set and be just as awed.
It’d be a disservice to sing the praises of The Favourite without mentioning the leading trio of actresses. Considering the density of their dialogue, the overwhelming perfection of their surroundings, and the way the camera draws attention to itself, it’d be easy for all the performances to get buried in this film, yet every actress makes a strong impact. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone play off of each other beautifully, fighting for the sympathy and affection of the audience the way they do for Queen Anne’s. In the moments the camera lingers on them, on their eyes, you can see a battle plan forming and the weapons of war being gathered.
Though of course it’s Queen Anne herself, Olivia Colman, who steals the show. She’s charming, hilarious, sympathetic, pathetic, and unflinchingly human in a role that would have been just as entertaining played only as a caricature. All of these actresses handle a shocking amount of tonal shifts and differing material with ease that grounds the otherwise fantastical film.
Because as with all great war movies, The Favourite is a little bit of everything. At times, it’s a ridiculous, nonsensical comedy that draws a laugh at the most unexpected times. At others, it becomes a rather gory horror film that you want to look away from. Sometimes it’s a bit of a romance and sometimes it’s a political thriller and sometimes it takes inspiration from those tragic period films about England that we have far too many of. The script blends and bounces through genres so well, it’s shocking they didn’t work in a musical number. But this is part of the charm of The Favourite; whatever expectations you have will be met and then cast aside.
The Favourite is not your typical war film. The battles aren’t waged with guns, though there are plenty of those, nor with horses, though there are some of those too, nor with poison, though that also makes an appearance. The war at the center of The Favourite is all about sex. And the emphasis on such an intimate, emotional, and powerful act reveals The Favourite’s fatal flaw.
For all its technical wonder, The Favourite is a cold film. The harsh lighting and camera work distances you from the characters and their emotions. The bouncing between genres can make it hard to take any idea presented seriously. The design elements render the film like an expensive vase: fun to look at, dangerous to touch. Simply put, it’s hard to invest emotionally in The Favourite. It’s hard to feel that anything happening matters and to convince yourself to care about it.
It’s hard to deny that this movie is good. Every artist working on it is at the top of their game, a technical master and a creative force to be reckoned with. But in ten years, five years, or even just at the end of this one, will anyone answer that The Favourite was their favorite film? The answer cannot be yes.
Overall Grade: B
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