Surprising combinations are the spice of life. Country music and hip hop, footballers’ wives and hard-boiled sleuthing – 2019 has been a great year for the unexpected mash-up, and none have proven quite as fruitful as pairing experimental weirdo Yorgos Lanthimos with period drama. The director of Dogtooth, taking his talents to the Stuart era? And yet with The Favourite, the results speak for themselves. $95m at the box office, seven BAFTAs, an Academy Award and now, most importantly of all, the top spot on ORWAV’s Best of 2019 list. Can’t say the title isn’t apt.
Recency bias is the plague of every Best-of list. It’s tough to reflect clearly on the last year’s cinema, and inevitably the movies we saw a week ago resonate more strongly than those six months prior. The studio schedule doesn’t help – the last few weeks of any year are stuffed with great cinema, looking to capitalise on our free time over the holidays, and the upcoming awards season.
It is telling, then, that The Favourite graced our screens on January 1st and it’s our number one of 2019. It’s just that memorable. Possibly the year’s most visually striking film, Lanthimos’ 18th-century royal residence is more akin to a nightmarish fraternity house, albeit one lit like a chapel. Around every cornice lurks new depravity, our worst impulses dressed up in finery with real attention to detail – think Stanley Kubrick via Wes Anderson, without getting too kitschy about it. Lanthimos’ lurid, at times nauseating, direction knows just when to press into the horror – and when to pull back and let the three starring performances take centre stage.
Oh, the performances, where to begin? While on the sidelines even Taylor Swift’s boyfriend acquits himself admirably, this movie belongs to the three women at its centre, each spellbinding in their own way. As Abigail, Emma Stone more than makes up for the sins of her past, just as we were beginning to forget why we fell for her in the first place. As The Favourite’s protagonist turned antagonist, ingenue turned interloper, Stone plays both sides of the field deftly, all the while maintaining a shockingly good British accent. She’s the newbie here – both Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman worked with Lanthimos in The Lobster – but Stone proves an ample fit for the director’s black comic sensibility.
Now, it’s impossible to talk about Rachel Weisz in The Favourite without thinking about that shooting outfit, so let’s take a quick detour. Get in loser, we’re going shopping.
Even to the untrained eye, costuming in The Favourite is nothing short of genius. As with Lanthimos’ direction, trade legend Sandy Powell knows just when to pull back, and when to go for broke. While Nicholas Hoult and co. are dressed up to the nines with pomp and circumstance, our three leads are kept in monochrome, makeup at a minimum to give them room to work. Nonetheless, their outfits are breathtaking, with even the tiniest details serving the film’s tone and themes. Powell swaps traditional lace for laser-cut PVC, adding to that distorted funhouse aesthetic while reinforcing the hard edge and untempered sexuality of the leads. Even the badger eyes aren’t just a throwaway gag; they fully inform Abigail’s rise to power – and imminent downfall, as she’s left with no one to tell her she looks like woodland animal.
Powell dresses Rachel Weisz as equal parts courtier and commandant, while Lanthimos gives her free rein to swagger through The Favourite as the pirate queen we all wish to serve. As Lady Marlborough, Weisz is delightful, trading wits and running laps around her contemporaries, including Queen Anne herself. Of course, the joy of The Favourite is that none of these women are one-dimensional, and as Marlborough falls from favour Weisz shows us a hundred shades of envy, fear, and loathing, all the while maintaining that loving heart that her opposition so lacks.
And then there’s the mustard on this delicious sandwich, Olivia Colman herself. Colman is a feral delight as Queen Anne, earning her Oscar ten times over. Her performance is hilarious, heartbreaking and gut-wrenchingly embarrassing. If they have special acting classes for facial expressions, The Favourite should be the textbook. Anne wears her heart – well, what’s left of it, shattered by grief as it is – on her sleeve, and Colman plays into her raw, untempered messiness. This balances well against the calculating and reserved plotting of both Abigail and Lady Marlborough, but in a lesser actor’s hands might veer into silly territory (I’m looking at you, Denethor). As it is, Colman finds the person behind every petulant mope and twisted snarl, and the way she moves her face between the gamut of emotions is mesmerising.
The Favourite’s gift to all of us is these three women. They are loving. They are violent. They are sexy. Equally delightful and grotesque. At times pitying and pitiable, and never giving up an inch of their story to the men in their orbit. Sure, Nicholas Hoult gets the odd zinger in, but The Favourite’s sharp, almost acrid script saves 2019’s funniest and most acerbic material to be delivered to perfection by three actors at the height of their powers. 2019 saw a slew of excellent female roles and performances, but no other film in 2019 gave three women such space to be so awful, and so human.