There’s one scene in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite that rises above the impulses and practices of his hip nihilism, and shows something worth looking at and thinking about. A candlelit hall is the setting, dark as pitch with suggestions of golden flames and bright, made- up faces, who are attending a dance. The Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) takes to the floor with a member of the nobility, and they put on a ridiculous display. There’s a cut. Now, the camera holds on the face of the wheelchair-bound Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), as the smile in the corner of her lips begins to straighten out, her sad eyes fixed on Sarah. She calls proceedings to a halt, and demands to be removed from the room. This short scene, with its variation of tempo, its swift change of mood, and its trust in Colman’s performance, is skillful filmmaking.
But then Lanthimos forgets that he has scenes like this in him, and is sufficiently pleased by his emptiness. The story, which follows an amorous intrigue between the Queen and Sarah, which is interrupted by Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), a quick-study who seeks to rise to her former position in society, is related in a visual style marked by distortions. The array of Lanthimos’s formalism is tiresome: randomly employed camera movements, cosmetic tracking shots, grotesque wide-angle lenses (and fish-eye lenses) and the illusory lap dissolves. These techniques are not in themselves bad things — but the way they’re used in The Favourite does call attention to the film as a piece of stylistic hackwork.
It all seems like an elaborate joke played on Olivia Colman’s performance, which is so much better, deeper, sadder, crueler, and more interesting than any of the material surrounding her. She’s an ill woman, broken physically and emotionally, and there’s more intelligence in her moments of swinging between sweetness and petulance than in the film’s deficient script. This is a strain on Weisz, too, who, in a commanding turn, pummels her dialogue into submission, which would be entertaining if the writing wasn’t so uninspired: as is, she drops her aperçus with a murderous glee, but there’s nothing to them. Unfortunately, and this is reflected in the character she’s playing, Stone just isn’t in their company — she reaches for her line-readings with great strain, and always they evade her (Nicholas Hoult, as a gloriously bewigged Whig conspirator Robert Harley, does provide some relief).
Lanthimos, even in his good films, has a desperate problem with endings, and The Favourite suffers from this decidedly. Without too much detail, the final minutes appear to be a highly dubious, superficial, and abstract restatement of the events of the closing half hour, while also hinting at a much greater, more Colman-worthy film being hidden under the layers of insufferable style. The Favourite lacks what his previous film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), began with: a beating heart.
Image: Twentieth Century Fox.